ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday said a large number of developing countries did not have fiscal space to deal with the economic fallout of the Covid-19 outbreak and called for debt relief to deal with the situation.
Addressing the “Covid Action Platform” hosted by the World Economic Forum (WEF) through video link, he said G-20 countries were coming up with a debt relief initiative but more details were needed. “The reason why there should be such an initiative is because we need that fiscal space to divert resources to healthcare and environment. I talked to the heads of Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt and they informed me that they are facing a similar situation,” he added.
PM Khan said that due to limited resources the developing countries faced a dual challenge — combating the pandemic and dealing with poverty.
He said Pakistan could not afford a prolonged lockdown and millions would have starved if the lockdown was not lifted. “In Pakistan, we have 25 million workers who are either daily wage earners or are self-employed, and these are 25 million families; I will say it has affected 120-150 million people in total,” he added.
“These people are facing stark poverty, and unless these people work, they will starve, so what we did, and I am proud of my government for this, was that we started a cash disbursement programme,” he told the forum.
However, he said, this was only a short-term solution, which is why “we decided to ease the lockdown, as there is no way the government can give out handouts to feed people for too long”.
Pakistan becomes 25th country to have reported over 1,000 deaths
PM Khan said the experience of the developed world was completely different from what had been faced by the developing world. “In countries like India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, specifically the Indian subcontinent, our experience is somewhat different. The speed at which Covid-19 spread in Europe and the United States, we are not experiencing the same sort of speed and we have yet not reached our peak here,” he added.
He said the coming year was not just a challenge for Pakistan but for the entire world, as every country looked within and became insular, but ultimately “we are all connected and the response has to be global”.
“The way forward that we have this year as a nation is that we realise that we have to live with this virus at least until a vaccine comes out and balances it. We have raised a volunteer force in this regard — of one million volunteers — who will help the administration as it is already overburdened and so are the law enforcement agencies,” he added.
Nation has to live with virus
Addressing the inauguration ceremony of Tele-Health Platform (service through WhatsApp) launched to register doctors and other health practitioners and provide free online health service to patients, Prime Minister Khan said the nation would have to live with coronavirus for at least a year and more and more doctors would be needed to cope up with the situation as Pakistan becomes the 25th country to have reported over 1,000 deaths from the viral disease.
Pakistan becomes the sixth most affected country in terms of deaths in Asia after Iran, China, Turkey, India and Indonesia. The number of Covid-19 cases in the world has crossed the five million mark.
“The viral disease will continue to exit at least till the end of this year unless a vaccine comes into the market and till that time we have to live with the virus,” the prime minister said, adding that a large number of people had been affected economically by coronavirus in the country.
Talking about health facilities in the country, PM Khan said that even the developed countries were facing a severe health facility crisis, but due to the already dilapidated condition of the health sector in Pakistan, the government was facing a bigger challenge.
“Unfortunately, we ignored our health sector in the past, but we have to improve it not for Covid-19 but even after it to provide better health facilities to the people, especially those living in remote areas,” he added.
The prime minister said that earlier the government had started a tele-education programme in which students were being taught in special class through the state-run PTV and now it launched the tele-health programme to register doctors and other health practitioners, especially lady doctors, to give health advices to those living in the far-flung areas where doctors were not available.
“More and more doctors should get themselves registered with the tele-health programme to provide medical facilities to the people in hilly and remote areas through technology. With the passage of time, the number of coronavirus cases will rise in the country and there will be a need to have more doctors to combat the deadly virus,” he added.
According to the health ministry, Pakistan is the first country to have launched free of cost Covid-19 tele-health service. The service, launched by Digital Pakistan and the Ministry of National Health Services, will connect volunteer doctors with the citizens who may have symptoms and need guidance from professional healthcare providers.
“For our 210 million populations, there are roughly less than 150,000 doctors. For the common person, they sometimes have to take a whole day out to travel from their village to a city to see a doctor. When the coronavirus crisis happened, the prime minister advised us to use technology to address the problems. We wanted to reduce the burden and risk on our healthcare facilities and our doctors,” said Tania Aidrus, Special Assistant to the Prime Minister (SAPM) on Digital Pakistan, during the launching ceremony.
“Keeping this situation in mind, we built our solution with WhatsApp so Pakistanis would not have to learn a new app or website. They can simply message the WhatsApp number and receive a call from the doctor,” she explained.
SAMP on Health Dr Zafar Mirza said doctors and healthcare professionals on the frontlines were doing and had already done so much. “One outcome of the Covid-19 pandemic is the need to scale up digital health solutions. This tele-health portal allows those doctors who are at home, or overseas Pakistani health professionals to come to their support and lessen the burden,” he added.
Meanwhile, 2,198 new cases of Covid-19 and 40 deaths were reported during the last 24 hours, taking the national tally of cases to 47,259 and deaths to 1,009. As many as 344 patients are in critical condition, while 10,731 patients have been admitted to 726 hospitals across the country.
Meanwhile, Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa called on Prime Minister Imran Khan and discussed with the latter matters pertaining to the internal security, current situation vis-à-vis Covid-19 pandemic, relief efforts and the overall regional situation, said a press release issued by the Prime Minister Office.
Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi, Planning and Development Minister Asad Umar and ISI Director General Lt Gen Faiz Hameed were present during the meeting. It was quite unusual that SAPM on Accountability Shahzad Akbar also joined the meeting.
Ikram Junaidi also contributed to this report
Published in Dawn, May 21st, 2020