Pakistan plans nationwide coronavirus survey amid fears of massive undercounting of cases

Ben Farmer
A health official conducts a COVID-19 test on a journalist in Peshawar, Pakistan 03 June 2020. Countries around the world are taking increased measures to stem the widespread of the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus which causes the Covid-19 disease. Coronavirus COVID-19 testing in Pakistan, Peshawar - 03 Jun 2020 - Shutterstock

Pakistan is planning a nationwide survey to estimate how many have been infected by the new coronavirus amid fears officials numbers are missing huge numbers of cases.

A pilot study will be conducted in the capital, Islamabad, before a nationwide study which includes antibody tests to identify those who have been infected and recovered, is launched later this month, Dawn newspaper reported.

Results disclosed this week from an earlier random test survey in one province suggested the virus is far more prevalent than official case figures recognise.

That testing by Punjab health officials estimated six percent of people had coronavirus, making an estimated 670,000 cases in the city of Lahore alone.

Yet to date, officials have only recorded around 80,000 cases in the entire country of 220 million.

Doctors earlier this week said they were expecting a surge of cases into hospitals stemming from infections during socialising and partying during the final days of Ramadan and during the Eid religious holiday.

A senior official of the National Institute of Health (NIH) told the paper many people may not be showing symptoms.

“There is a possibility that a large number of people would be asymptomatic and were not being detected as symptoms are not developed in them,” the official said.

The study will begin in the capital, which has a population of 2.2 million.

“After that, we will be able to get the countrywide estimated number. It has been decided to hold a national level study to know which parts of the country are the most infected,” he said.

By June 3, the country had officially recorded 1,688 deaths. Doctors and international health officials warn that the death toll is probably significantly higher because people are dying at home untested and unrecorded.

On Wednesday, another Pakistani politician died after testing positive, bringing the total to four. Mian Jamshed Kakakhel, who was a member of a provincial assembly in the northwest, died Wednesday. His death comes a day after two lawmakers died at different hospitals after testing positive for the coronavirus.

Critics blame prime minister Imran Khan for an increase in deaths and infections. They accuse him of easing restrictions last month at a time when there was a need to enforce a stricter lockdown to contain the spread of the virus.

Mr Khan has argued lockdown restrictions are unfeasible in a poverty-stricken country like Pakistan and shutting down the economy with bans on gatherings and movement would only see the poor starve.