When Saadat Khan, 50, returned to Pakistan on March 9 from a pilgrimage to Saudi Arabia, he was greeted in his village with a rousing welcome and a grand feast attended by more than 2,000 people, many of whom embraced him warmly.
On March 18, less than 10 days later, Khan died at an isolation center for coronavirus patients in the northwestern city of Mardan. He died from COVID-19, the day his test results came back positive.
Khan was Pakistan’s first fatality from a disease that is rapidly spreading through the country of 220 million people. The virus has already infected over 317,000 people worldwide, and killed more than 13,000.
The number of confirmed cases in Pakistan has soared to more than 750 from 22 last week, largely driven by a wave of pilgrims returning from Iran who Pakistani authorities said were inadequately tested and improperly isolated. At least four people have died from the disease in Pakistan in the past week.
Thousands of people now need to undergo the slow process of retesting, and authorities fear the number of cases could surge in coming days.
Health experts say there is a lack of public awareness in Pakistan about the virus and that the cash-strapped government is ill-prepared to tackle its spread. A shortage of quarantine facilities and testing labs have also hampered efforts to effectively deal with high-risk cases.
In Sindh, Pakistan’s hardest-hit province, the situation is already grim, said Dr. Naseem Salahuddin, the head of department for infectious diseases at Indus Hospital in Karachi. She said that the few hospitals equipped to handle COVID-19 cases in Karachi are either close to capacity or have shut their doors because they can’t handle the influx of suspected cases.
“We’re likely to have a very big outbreak no matter what we do now,” she said. “And we will not be equipped to handle the numbers. There will be breakdowns at many levels.” Better border controls and quarantine measures should have been instituted a lot earlier, she said. “I think the cat’s now out of the bag.”
Zafar Mirza, Pakistan’s health minister, who said last week that some of Pakistan’s quarantine facilities had not been “ideal”, did not respond to Reuters’ requests for comment. The provincial health minister in Khan’s home province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also did not respond to a request for comment.
Reuters interviewed three doctors involved in the case, as well as four people from Khan’s village, and reviewed medical case notes detailing his travel history. Together, they provide a picture of Khan’s last days, and illustrate why the South Asian nation is rapidly becoming the latest hotbed of the fast-spreading disease.