Governments in the populous South East Asian region are struggling with a shortage of tests and equipment as millions of people across Pakistan, India and Bangladesh face poverty amid lockdowns.

A doctor and nurse wear protective masks as they stand in a passenger train's car after the government turned it into a hospital and quarantine centre following the coronavirus outbreak in Karachi, Pakistan, March 31, 2020.
A doctor and nurse wear protective masks as they stand in a passenger train's car after the government turned it into a hospital and quarantine centre following the coronavirus outbreak in Karachi, Pakistan, March 31, 2020. (Reuters)

Dozens of prisoners in a Pakistani jail have contracted the novel coronavirus, officials have said, with more than 150 additional inmates potentially infected as cases of Covid-19 continue to soar in the impoverished country.

At least 49 inmates at a jail in the eastern city of Lahore have tested positive, according to a tweet by the provincial chief minister late on Monday.

The outbreak is believed to have stemmed from an inmate who was arrested for smuggling narcotics and had returned from Italy last month. He was diagnosed on March 23.

"Health department officials are coming every day to monitor the situation and the conditions of the patients," Amir Rauf Khawaja, a public relations officer for the Lahore jail authority, said on Tuesday.

Khawaja said the test results for an additional 154 prisoners were still pending and authorities had set up a quarantine area inside the facility for inmates that had tested positive for the coronavirus.

Ali Haider Habib from the advocacy group Justice Project Pakistan called the outbreak a cause for "great alarm", saying "drastic measures" including releasing vulnerable prisoners needed to be taken immediately.

According to a 2019 government report, there are more than 70,000 people currently incarcerated in 114 different facilities across Pakistan, many of which are stretched beyond their intended capacity making the facilities a potential flashpoint for the highly contagious coronavirus.

The Supreme Court is set to review a petition filed by the country's attorney general calling for the early release of thousands of prisoners in the light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

With limited testing, Pakistan has recorded 4,004 cases and 54 deaths, including two doctors. 

On Tuesday, Pakistan's military promised dozens of doctors who were briefly jailed for taking to the streets in Balochistan province to protest the lack of protective equipment will get the equipment they need.

The 47 doctors protested in Quetta, the provincial capital, on Monday, when they were detained. They were released later the same day, according to provincial spokesman Liaquat Shahwani.

An army statement on Tuesday said the “emergency supplies of medical equipment, including PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), are being dispatched to Quetta."

However, some of the doctors said they were maltreated by the police and that some of their colleagues were beaten. The physicians declined to give their names, fearing reprisals.

Pakistani authorities have imposed a countrywide lockdown until April 14.

Indian leaders call for lockdown extension 

Over in neighbouring India, the 21-day lockdown is set to end next week but several state leaders have called for an extension or only a partial lifting of restrictions, saying is the only way to avoid a coronavirus epidemic that will be difficult to tackle.

India has so far escaped a big surge in cases, with limited testing and the world's biggest lockdown ––1.3 billion people –– last month that authorities have enforced tightly.

But shuttering down the $2.9 trillion economy has left millions of people without work and forced those who live on daily wages to flee to their homes in the countryside for food and shelter.

India announced on Tuesday a partial lifting of a fresh export ban on a malaria drug seen as a potential coronavirus treatment after US President Donald Trump hinted at "retaliation". 

Citing domestic needs, India banned on Saturday exports of hydroxychloroquine which has shown some promise against Covid-19 in small-scale studies in France and China. 

India is the world's largest producer and exporter of the drug, according to media reports.

Global stocks are however limited and Trump said that he had pressed Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi this weekend to expedite shipments, hinting at consequences otherwise.

"If he doesn't allow it to come out, he doesn't allow it to come out, that would be okay, but of course, there may be retaliation, why wouldn't there be?" Trump said on Monday.

The Indian foreign ministry swiftly backtracked and on Tuesday said it would now license the export of the drug and paracetamol – exports of which were restricted in March – "in appropriate quantities to all our neighbouring countries who are dependent on our capabilities."

"We will also be supplying these essential drugs to some nations who have been particularly badly affected by the pandemic," foreign ministry spokesman Anurag Srivastava said in a statement.

He added that they would be "kept in a licensed category and... continuously monitored."

Trump has strongly touted hydroxychloroquine as a coronavirus treatment although many scientists are urging caution until larger trials show whether it is safe and effective.

Hydroxychloroquine and another drug, chloroquine, have been used for decades against malaria but they have potentially serious side effects, especially in high doses or administered with other medications.

Bangladesh suspends prayers

Bangladesh has suspended all prayers, including Friday congregations, at mosques as part of efforts to stem the spread of Covid-19. 

The Muslim-majority country also imposed the restriction for all other religious groups, asking them to continue prayers and other activities at home to help the country overcome the coronavirus crisis. 

The decision was announced in an emergency notification issued on Monday by the Islamic Foundation Bangladesh, which operates under the Ministry of Religious Affairs. 

The latest measure comes as Bangladesh reported 35 new Covid-19 cases and three fatalities on Monday, bringing the total cases to 123 and death toll to 12 respectively.

Over the weekend, thousands of Bangladeshi garment workers who were ordered home voiced concerns about loss of income after arriving at work to find factories remained shut after the cancellation of Western orders due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Although official numbers were not available, labour leaders said the majority of the workers they had spoken to had either been temporarily laid off or sent on leave. A smaller section of workers complained of being sacked.

Bangladesh, which ranks behind only China as a supplier of clothes to Western countries, relies on the garment industry for more than 80 percent of its exports, with some 4,000 factories employing about 4 million people, mostly women.

The workers went to factories in Dhaka hoping to get paid for March and resume work after a 10-day break enforced by the government to tackle the spread of the coronavirus.

Although the government later extended the shutdown to April 14, workers said the owners asked them to return by April 5.

"When they reached the factories this morning, most of the workers were told that they were laid off or that the factory would resume after the shutdown," said Khadiza Akter, vice president of the union Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation.

Akter said thousands of workers had put their lives at risk due to "mismanagement" in a bid to get back to work, ignoring advice over social distancing and with police outside the factories telling them to return home.

"They didn't have to come back. They could have been told on the phone about the factory closures," she said.

Bangladesh vowed on Monday to provide emergency food supplies for "as long as needed" to thousands of sex workers left destitute by the sudden closure of brothels due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The government on March 20 announced it was shutting about 12 officially sanctioned brothels in Bangladesh until at least April 5, including one of the world's largest brothels, Daulatdia, which houses about 1,500 female sex workers.

The closures prompted sex workers to appeal to the government for help and authorities promised to give them all a package of 30 kgs of rice, a freeze on rent, and $25.

Source: TRTWorld and agencies