It seems that the call from overseas Pakistanis, stranded across the world away from their families because of limited flights, has been answered by the government. Over the next fifteen days, the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) will operate 103 flights from different cities to the different international destinations to evacuate Pakistanis from other countries.

A national effort to bring stranded Pakistani citizens them back home was essential since it discourages other backhanded, more risky channels of return. Yet this effort needs to be accompanied by stringent safety measures. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has issued guidelines for countries repatriating nationals from affected areas, which include a restricted number of passengers per flight, spaces between seating to limit physical contact, exit screening shortly before flight, risk communication to travellers and crew, infection control supplies for voyage and crew preparedness for possibility of sick passengers in flight. Along with entry screening, passengers arriving from abroad also need close follow-up for 14 days after arrival. While these measures may be expensive, it is important that the PIA not charge unreasonably high ticket prices. These are exceptional times and these special flights should be seen as a rescue mission, not a commercial opportunity.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has issued strict standard operating procedures, which it claims will be rigidly followed. Unfortunately, videos which have emerged from previous special flights show that social distancing measures have not been properly followed, despite exorbitant ticket prices. Passengers of previous special mission flights have complained of crowded planes and no seat gaps. This lax implementation will lead to a further surge in the spread of the virus, something our country cannot afford.

This needs to be fixed immediately and the CAA must ensure these safety measures are being adhered to. To not do so could prove to be fatal.