Islamabad: Pakistanis on Saturday celebrated the country's first day of the holy month of Ramadan by flocking to mosques and markets, ignoring advice to stay home as coronavirus cases rise.
Prime Minister Imran Khan has come under pressure for his handling of the virus crisis, after causing confusion by saying Pakistan could not afford the type of sweeping lockdowns seen in other nations.
His government also caved to religious pressure, allowing daily prayers and evening congregations at mosques during Ramadan, albeit with some protective measures in place.
In a snub to Khan's leadership, Pakistan's powerful military on Friday urged people to pray at home, warning the "next 15 days are crucial".
But that advice was largely ignored or downplayed across much of the country, home to about 215 million people who often live in cramped, multi-generational quarters.
In Rawalpindi, the garrison city adjacent to Islamabad, thousands of shoppers thronged popular markets, some without wearing protective gear, to buy food for evening iftar meals that celebrate the end of each day's fasting.
Similar scenes unfolded in the northwestern city of Peshawar and in the eastern city of Lahore.
Muneeb Khan, 27, said he was fed up with wearing a mask and gloves.
"How long are we going to wear them? I am tired of it, now it depends on my mood, sometimes I wear it and sometimes not," he told AFP as he shopped at a pharmacy.
At Islamabad's mosques, worshippers were thinner on the ground than typical for Ramadan's first day, but elsewhere social distancing guidelines and a ban on older worshippers were widely ignored.
Zafar Mirza, the prime minister's special advisor for health, decried the rush to the markets and pleaded with people to stay home.
"This is against the guidelines and directives," he told reporters.
"Pakistan is passing through a very crucial phase and if we do not take preventive measures, this disease will spike very quickly."
Doctors associations have repeatedly called on the government to impose a comprehensive lockdown as pressure grows on the country's already struggling health system.
So far Pakistan has recorded more than 12,000 confirmed COVID-19 infections and 256 deaths - but with only limited testing, the real numbers are believed to be much higher.
The World Health Organization has warned that without effective interventions, Pakistan cases could soar to 200,000 cases by mid-July.
"The impacts on the economy could be devastating, doubling the number of people living in poverty. We must act in solidarity, with a coherent, coordinated approach," the WHO, quoting chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said on Twitter.
Asad Umar, who heads the national coronavirus task force, told reporters authorities had approved a "smart lockdown" aimed at testing people, then tracking or quarantining those who are positive.
"Ramadan is a decisive month," he said.