Col. Iftikhar Ahmmed, Charge d’ Affaires, Embassy of Pakistan, Ashgabat
COVID 19; as is commonly known has engulfed entire globe with varying intensity from region to region thus making it a global challenge. Pakistan is amongst the 180+ countries dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Precaution, Prevention, followed by stringent fight against deadly yet unseen enemy, are strategic pillars of Pakistan’s fight against COVID 19. Unlike developed world with unlimited reserves, developing countries need to find the balancing act between averting a health crisis and keeping the economy afloat. Nevertheless, Government of Pakistan along with resilient nation responded to challenge in befitting manner and is undertaking measures to mitigate health emergency as well as alleviate economic concerns.
In order to have effective measures, Government of Pakistan convened a meeting of the National Security Committee on the 13th March 2020 and established a National Coordination Committee, chaired by the Special Advisor to the Prime Minister for Health & Population, and designated the National Disaster Management Agency (NDMA) as the leading operational agency against COVID pandemic. A systematic and measured response was generated in light of decisions being taken in National Coordination Committee, which is not only helping in controlling the spread but simultaneously, avoiding the far-reaching economic ramifications, envisaged in case of complete nation-wide lockdown. Based on experiences shared by other countries and guidelines issued by WHO, strategy evolved was to:-
- Interrupt human-to-human transmission, reduce infections among close contacts and health care workers and prevent transmission amplification events
- Identify, isolate and treat patients for early recovery
- Simultaneously, address crucial mysteries regarding clinical severity, extent of transmission and infection, treatment options and probable working on remedial measures including vaccines
- Present true picture through daily official update, to sensitize general public besides countering misinformation
- Persistent efforts to minimize social and economic impact through multispectral partnerships.
Mitigating the Economic Challenge
- Two fold economic stimulus package was unveiled by the government of Pakistan which included, PKR 1.13 trillion ($6.76 billion)with a good balance between providing direct assistance to the vulnerable and protecting industry / businesses. Secondly, direct cash distribution of the PKR 144 billion (US$ 861 million) Ehsaas Emergency Cash (social protection) initiative, to address needs of almost 12 million families across the country through world’s most well targeted cash transfer programmes – the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP). The databases that guide this are managed by two Pakistani institutions, the Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety Division, and the National Database and Registration Authority.
- In order to protecting businesses, setting the right foundation to kick-start the economy is imperative for the government. The economic stimulus package contains a whole range of fiscal measures (tax breaks, financial support via utilities, fuel and transport subsidies, concessions and tax refunds) to protect exporters and businesspersons. The government has also announced a separate package worth PKR 100 billion ($600 million) just for SMEs, which form close to 90% of all enterprises in Pakistan and generate 40% of non-agriculture employment.
- The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) has announced an Economic Refinance Facility to fuel new investment. This will offer subsidized loans to the manufacturing sector and a Refinance Facility to allow banks to get loans at zero mark-up besides drop in interest rates.
- Charity; Pakistanis are famous for (1 % of GDP as reported by BBC), is also great contributing factor for sustenance of people living below poverty line. Populace has generously contributed to PM Corona Relief Fund and munificently helped fellows not so well-blessed.
Measured/ Innovative response to counter outbreak
- Besides ban on all public gathering functions, including educational institutions, International as well as national transport services including air, rail and public transport suspended to counter the outbreak threat.
- In coordination with both countries, borders with Afghanistan and Iran were closed from 2 March onwards, with only partial opening of border with Afghanistan after 21 March for transportation essentially required food items by Afghanistan.
- The State Bank of Pakistan (Central Bank) issued disinfected cash to all banks for circulation while ensuring to “clean, disinfect, seal and quarantine all cash being collected from hospitals and clinics and to block circulation of such cash in the market.”
- Prime Minister’s initiative for formulation of a young volunteers force (Corona Relief Tigers) to assist the administration in fight against the spread of coronavirus nationwide. These volunteers (Approximate 800,000 registered so far) shall be used across the country to supply food items/ necessary assistance to people in their houses in case Covid-19 cases sharply rise in any locality.
- Army has been moved in to assist government, and military’s medical resources dovetailed alongside the national health infrastructure. A 10,000-bed field hospital at Karachi and 3,000 bed at Lahore for confirmed patients has been established.
- Spread is further being controlled by collecting the samples from homes, where such symptoms are reported.
- Special package for healthcare professionals/ paramedic treating Corona patients has been announced.
- Pakistan during these testing times has been able to produce masks, PPE and above all is in process of final trials for critically needed ventilators, which shall not only meet Pakistan’s requirement but assist other countries too.
- An innovative and smart solution by using technology to create awareness, mitigate the risks, and contain the shock created by such pandemics is also being practiced. To promote public knowledge, the government, in collaboration with the telecommunication industry, replaced ringtones with an awareness message to the caller about the dangers of Covid-19 and measures to remain safe. Besides that, country wide call centers established, where doctors provide online guidance/ remedial treatments to patients not requiring attention in person.
Such pandemics expose the inadequacies of the responses to healthcare, inclusive social protection and above all governance. While one cannot predict what will spur the next major epidemic and when, early action can help prepare governments to handle it better. However, any strategy that counters such a pandemic must address underlying vulnerabilities. The challenges faced by world in the current crisis are stark, and it remains to be seen whether the huge interventions that the governments are undertaking will be enough to mitigate the loss of life and economic adversity. Fine balance between economy and health is only way forward otherwise one flattened curve shall have implications for the other. /// Embassy of Pakistan, Ashgabat, 22 April 2020