Due to Pakistan and Afghanistan sharing borders with Covid-19 infected Iran, both countries have been highly vulnerable to the spread of the virus in their territories. Despite knowledge of a high number of infections and fatalities in Iran, Pakistan neither stopped its citizens from leaving to visit holy sites in Iran nor shut down its border for incoming religious tourists and alleged Zeinabiyoun mercenaries. The World Health Organization (WHO) analysis of the spread of the coronavirus suggests that 46 percent of infections originated in Iran while 27 percent originated in other countries.
Multiple Pakistani officials, including Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, have defensively admitted that Iran pushed Pakistani visitors to no-man’s land along the border because its healthcare system was overwhelmed with infections. Media outlets have reported consistently quoting highly placed sources that the border security force, the Frontier Constabulary, and the Balochistan provincial government were over-ruled and pressurized by some unelected, pro-Iran advisors and ministers of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s cabinet.
The government’s conservative assessment suggests that the country could witness 50,000 infection cases by April 25 while Islamabad has recorded 1,000 infection cases quicker than Italy. Pakistan’s soaring curve reflects a trend like Spain.
Afghanistan’s saga of imported infection cases is even more bizarre and tragic. More than 115,000 Afghans returned from Iran between March 8 and March 21, according to the International Organization for Migration. Afghan officials admit that only around 10 percent of arrivals had their temperatures checked.
The Health Ministry estimates that half of Afghanistan’s estimated 32 million to 34 million population can contract the virus, with around 110,000 fatalities expected. The country’s health facilities are inadequate, and the weakness of the Afghan government means that the possibility of imposing a lockdown is virtually impossible.
The threat to Pakistan and Afghanistan is exacerbated by the fact that health facilities in Iran’s southeastern and southern provinces are extremely poor, especially in Sistan-Balochistan. Pakistan shares a 956-kilometer-long porous border with the impoverished Sistan province where infections are on the rise. Afghanistan has a 921-kilometer-long permeable border with Iran.
The threat to Pakistan and Afghanistan will not be over till Iran completely and effectively seals the border and deploys enough manpower and resources to monitor informal routes and trafficking while screening individuals found there. After 1,000 people entered Pakistan from Iran, Islamabad started establishing quarantine camps along the Taftan entry point between the two countries but there was no real screening. Health workers stationed at Taftan were not trained and insufficient medical equipment was provided. In addition, the government did not deploy security personnel to deal with aggressive and belligerent crowds, refusing screening and quarantine.
Afghanistan, on the other hand, has no state machinery to restrict the exodus of its nationals from Iran. For Pakistan, Afghanistan’s precarious situation poses another mind-boggling challenge in its attempt to fight the virus. Despite the border fence installed along its side of the border with Afghanistan, the free movement of people continues in far-flung, mountainous and impoverished areas.
Nonetheless, the outbreak of the virus via religious tourists from Qom has exposed Iran’s penetration into Pakistan at the highest political level and at the grassroots level. The scale of religious tourists traveling to Iran was never known publicly before. It is estimated that some 30,000 Pakistanis were inside Iran by the end of February. Officially around a few thousand have made it back. Where are the rest? Will they take the risk of staying in Iran during the virus crisis? Will they even be allowed to return? If they have made it back, how porous is the south-western border?
The COVID-19 curve in Iran has not flattened yet but the government has decided to reopen offices and restart low-risk economic activities. As a result, infections are likely to increase, especially as Iran is a Covid-19 red zone and the knock-effect will be felt by Pakistan and Afghanistan. Both countries need to take urgent action along their respective borders with Iran to contain the virus, otherwise domestic policies to fight the virus are unlikely to be successful.