Snow and extreme cold mean that the Khunjerab Pass is currently closed to trade and traffic. image by Ghulam Rasool
With burgeoning trade and a large movement of people enabled by the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, the coronavirus is having an impact on Pakistan even though no case has been confirmed yet
Mohammad Yaqoob is a worried man. Of the 53 containers that he had booked and loaded with walnuts, the last ten – with goods worth over PKR 90 million (USD 582,000) – have been stuck on the Chinese side of the border for the last two months. There is little hope that they will be able to cross before April. “By then the walnuts would all have gone bad,” he lamented.
Located at 5,000 meters above sea level, the Khunjerab Pass is where the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor enters Pakistani administered territory from Chinese administered areas.
“The traders get all their goods across to Pakistan well before November 30th after which Khunjerab Pass closes and then opens in the first week of April,” said Shah Jehan, who is president of the Gilgit-Baltistan’s (G-B’s) Hunza chapter of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry. The government closes the passage due to heavy snow as it makes navigation difficult and risky.
Unfortunately, due to a shortage of vehicles in Xinjiang, all their goods could not be transported on time. Some 186 containers of several traders, including Yaqoob’s, are stuck on the other side of the pass containing everything from red chilies to machinery to garments.
As the snowfall stopped and roads were cleared of snow, the traders urged the G-B government to open the border just for a week from February 2 to 8 as a special consideration to allow their containers through.
Enter the coronavirus
“Now due to the virus it seems highly unlikely the government will open [the border] or let our goods through,” lamented Yaqoob. The outbreak of novel Coronavirus (2019-nCoV) has killed more than 200 people and infected more than 10,000 people in China and abroad.
Speaking to thethirdpole.net, Raja Rashid Ali, Secretary in charge of Health in the Gilgit-Baltistan provincial government, confirmed the decision has been taken not to open the border. “We had recommended to the ministry of foreign affairs not to open the border,” he said.
Infectious disease specialist Naseem Salahuddin was relieved that the Khunjerab Pass is closed. “Theoretically, there is a likelihood of the virus sneaking in from there,” she said. But with the pass closed for business, it is also closed to the virus.
Her relief is Yaqoob’s disappointment. “It is so unjust; they [government] are allowing passengers and goods to enter Pakistan via the air and sea routes,” he said, “but not via the road.” In this, he may be ignoring the fact that the numbers by air and sea are likely to be much smaller, which is the main argument of China’s Belt and Road Initiative.
One can still understand his disappointment. On top of his goods getting spoiled, he said he had paid a huge amount to transport the goods as the transportation price had skyrocketed from yuan 20,000 ($2,882) to 50,000-60,000 yuan ($7,206-8,648). “We had paid 50% of [this amount] already and 50% was to be paid once they reached the Sost checkpoint, in Pakistan,” said the trader who has been in the business for the last six years.
The value of the cross-border trade has been increasing rapidly over those years, raising the expectations that have now been disappointed. Quoting the China New Network, the Pakistani English daily The Nation had pegged the growth at 75% year on year and is now $853 million in trade volume.
Internment camps and a demand for medical wear
Yaqoob said he was in constant touch with his Chinese counterpart in Xinjiang and insisted, “there is not a single reported case of a person infected with this virus.” However, this province is on the radar of many governments due to the internment camps (officially called Vocational Education and Training Centers by the Chinese) with poor sanitation and health care for about one million Muslims. A report by The New York Times says the virus has already reached there and the risk of it spreading is grave.
Interestingly, said Yaqoob, his business partner was asking him to send him masks and protective gear “the kind you see doctors wearing in a theatre – robes, masks, headgear”. The only problem is he cannot find the manufacturers making them in the quantities his partner is asking. “It’s ironic, but this disease is opening up newer opportunities, ” he said.
The difficult conditions
Eiman Shah was at Sost just five days ago. “There is no activity at the check-post,” he told TTP. Shah was the duty managing director at the check-post in 2006-08. On a regular day up to “135 trucks enter Pakistan” traversing a little over 100 kilometres distance from Khunjerab Pass to Sost in five hours.
The health department of G-B has recommended the deployment of medical staff to the border to check the disease and isolate patients and refer them for treatment. It has insisted that thermal scanners and other equipment, including gloves, surgical masks, disposable garments, and long aprons as well as ambulances, would be available at the border. But this may be a big task.
“At a temperature bordering between -12 and -16 degrees Centigrade [at the moment], it is not possible to set up a screening facility there,” pointed out Shah, adding that he had seen the district health director’s letter in which the latter had told his superiors that he would be unable to provide the screening due to lack of trained manpower and the absence of a residential facility for them.
The Secretary in charge of Health, Ali, confirmed receiving the letter saying the federal government had up to two months, until April, to set up the facility at Sost if need be. “Prevention of the disease is the responsibility of the federal government, and if God forbid, an infection is detected, it will fall on our heads to deal with it. By April when the weather is better, our own health care staff can be trained to screen people from China and we have already set up isolation wards in four hospitals in G-B. It is not a huge deal; we can do it,” he told thethirdpole.net.
Chinese workers in Sindh
Meanwhile, in the district of Tharparkar in the southern Sindh province, of the over 500 Chinese working in the Thar Block 2 Coal mine and the power plant, some 50 to 60 who had gone for the New Year holiday before January 20 have not returned.
“Their return has been put on a temporary hold till the Chinese authorities take a decision, and the rest of them have been medically screened,” said Syed Abul Fazal Rizvi, heading the Sindh Engro Coal Mining Company. “We are taking this virus spread very seriously and monitoring the situation very closely.” There are Chinese working in Block 1 as well, but we were unable to speak to the company.
The company was to bring in some 120 new Chinese workers for the second phase of its project, who were supposed to reach Pakistan and work on it from mid-February. “That has been put on hold for now,” he said, adding, “It’s not likely to cause any major delay in our targets,” as they would rather have a minor delay that than take health risks.
Meanwhile, the infectious disease specialist Salahuddin said dozens of Chinese have been coming in a panic to the Aga Khan University Hospital, in Karachi, where she is working, “especially if they show even the slightest of respiratory symptoms. But so far none have been found to have 2019-nCoV,” she said.
The Chinese border post at Khunjerab in warmer months. Credit: Rina Saeed Khan
Pakistan cannot afford complacency
However, Pakistan cannot and should not become complacent, she emphasised. “If it enters Pakistan it will spread like wildfire. There will be many more deaths as our general population is fairly unhealthy from diabetes, TB, and other diseases. It will be impossible to handle it the way Wuhan and the Chinese did,” where the Chinese government has imposed a lockdown. Although airports are screening travellers entering from China, if, in the unfortunate event, a confirmed case does pass this undetected, or people are struck by the virus, she is not sure Pakistan has sufficient areas for quarantine. “Hospitals will be struggling for proper precautions, even though SOPs have been prescribed.”
The same fear recently prompted the director, Special Protection Unit (SPU), to write to his superior, the Inspector General of Punjab asking him that the over 10,000 policemen deputed for the security of nearly 4,000 Chinese experts at various sites of CPEC across the province, needed protection from the virus. “As the Chinese move in and out on a daily basis in Pakistan it may also spread in our country and our constabulary,” read the SPU head’s letter.
At the same time, healthcare providers remain at high risk of contracting the disease being at the forefront. Taking the lead and prompt action, the National Institute of Health has issued a timely advisory for them. The World Health Organization has advised nations to avoid panic and spreading misinformation and instead focus on containing the disease. “Our guidance for all countries is quickly identified cases, isolate patients and provide care,” said Maria Van Kerkhove, head of WHO’s emerging diseases unit. “Also, avoid human to human contacts, including with family members,” she said.
The WHO has now classified the virus outbreak as a public health emergency of international concern. The symptoms of the coronavirus first caused alarm among the medical circles in the city of Wuhan, the capital of Hubei province, on December 1 but it was not until December 31, that China informed the international public health agency of the virus. The lockdown happened on January 23 but by then, according to the Wuhan mayor, five million people had already fled the city.
The administration of G-B says they are unworried. “If you ask me, this unnecessary hysteria is caused by the western media and is nothing more than a ploy to put China down, ” remarked Ali, G-B’s health secretary. “My considered opinion is that it should not have been declared a global emergency as China has been able to contain it to a large extent given its size and population”. He added that WHO could well have been influenced by the US. “You know there is a clear trade rivalry going on between the US and China.” The former feels threatened by the latter’s economic expansion. Courtesy: TheThirdpole.net
Zoofeen T. Ebrahim is a Karachi-based journalist and Pakistan Editor for thethirdpole.net