By Asif Shahzad
ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistan’s Supreme Court ordered the government on Monday to lift some of the remaining restrictions imposed on business to halt the spread of the coronavirus, even as the country recorded a rise in infections since beginning to emerge from lockdown.
In its decision, which is binding, the court said the virus “apparently is not a pandemic in Pakistan” and questioned why fighting it was “swallowing so much money”.
The court ordered shopping malls to be reopened if health authorities do not object, and curbs to be lifted on businesses opening on the weekends.
The order was issued using the supreme court’s broad authority to issue rulings “suo motu” – on its own motion – without waiting for a particular case to come before it.
Pakistan has reported 42,125 COVID-19 cases and 903 deaths. While those totals are low so far compared to many Western countries, the numbers have risen sharply this month.
Authorities, including Prime Minister Imran Khan, have said the rise in cases has been lower than projected estimates. Faced with the prospect of the lockdown causing economic collapse, they allowed retail markets to reopen last week in a phased lifting of a countrywide lockdown.
Doctors have criticised the reopening, expressing concern that the virus could quickly spread and overwhelm the health system.
“It will definitely lead to an increase in the number of cases, the number of critical cases,” the secretary of Pakistan’s Young Doctors’ Association, Salman Kazmi, told Reuters this month. “We are concerned about pressure that will come on the hospitals.”
Re-opened markets were immediately packed with customers last week, with little sign of social distancing or face masks.
The court said that as long as markets were open, there was no justification to shut shopping malls. It found no “justifiable rational or reasonable” basis for businesses to be ordered to shut over the weekend.
“We find no reason why so much money is being spent on this Coronavirus (COVID-19), for that, Pakistan is not the country which is seriously affected by it,” the court order said.
The court order came as the country’s railway announced that it will resume limited train operations from May 20, and two of the four Pakistani provinces started opening public transport.
With the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holidays coming up on Sunday or Monday subject to sighting of moon, the transport and retail shopping are expected to draw massive crowds.
(Writing by Asif Shahzad; Additional Reporting by Mubasher Bukhari in Lahore, Pakistan; Editing by Peter Graff)