Imran Khan
Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan addressing at the COVID-19 Action Platform of World Economic Forum via video link on May 20. Image Credit: APP

Dubai: Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan has renewed his call of a debt-relief for the developing countries, including Pakistan, to cope with the COVID-19 challenges, including the economic difficulties and overwhelmed healthcare system.

“Pakistan is faced with two dilemmas. One, the growing COVID-19 cases and the second is starvation. We need to create a balance between controlling the spread of the virus and saving the people from starvation by opening up the economy,” Prime Minister Imran said while speaking the COVID Action Platform of the World Economic Forum via video link on Wednesday. He said there should be a debt relief, as they needed fiscal space to divert their resources to the healthcare system, besides mitigating the economic effects of the lockdown.

Debt-relief

The prime minister said the G-20 states had already come up with a policy of debt-relief for the developing countries and in that respect he held telephonic discussions with the leaders of Egypt, Ethiopia and Nigeria, who were also facing economic difficulties.

Sharp increase in COVID-19 cases

Prime Minister Imran’s call came as the COVID-19 infections in Pakistan trended higher in recent days and were approaching 50,000, official data showed, with total deaths crossing 1,000, as the government remained unsure over the consequences of its decision to end the nation’s lockdown.

Fearful of the economic and financial impact, and swayed by the acute hardship suffered by millions of poor families, Prime Minister Imran Khan has defended the lifting of the lockdown last week, saying the virus spread has been well below projections, reported Reuters.

Crowded markets

Soon after lifting the lockdown, crowd thronged the shopping malls and market for Eid shopping while people travel in droves to reach their hometowns. While the government has advised people to act responsibly, and avoid going out for non-essential reasons, there has been little mention of special precautions needed over the festival period.

25million daily wagers

Giving reasons behind lifting the lockdown, Prime Minister Imran said: “Pakistan’s 25M workers are daily wagers, paid weekly or self-employed. Their livelihood has been affected by the lockdown. We started a Cash Transfer program to mitigate the effect of lockdown. So far we have touched 15M families through our relief programme.”

Pakistan's challenge

The biggest challenge in Pakistan was how to mitigate the effects of lockdown; he said and mentioned that around 120 to 150 million people got affected due to the lockdown. “Unless workers, daily wagers or weekly wagers, go to work they cannot feed their families.” That was the reason Pakistan started easing lockdown restrictions and first opened the construction sector, he added.

Under-funded healthcare

For a country of Pakistan’s size with population of over 220 million, levels of testing remains low at around 14,000 a day. However, the official data, suggest the infection rate has so far remained relatively steady, with total infections doubling every 9 to 11 days since April 1. Doctors and experts fear Pakistan’s under-funded and creaking healthcare system if the contagion gathers more pace.

In the first 20 days of May, over 630 people have died, compared to around 380 in the entire month of April, data tabulated by Reuters shows. There were less than 10 deaths in March.

The 32 deaths reported on Wednesday took the total to 1,017, a government website showed, making Pakistan the 25th country worldwide where the toll has crossed a thousand. On Tuesday, Pakistan reported the most deaths for a single day at 46.

Infections on Wednesday were reported at 2,193 — the second highest for a single day — taking the total number of COVID-19 cases in Pakistan to 48,091.

Awful human cost

Regardless of the final death toll, Pakistan expects to suffer an awful human cost, as the government expects millions more of its people to fall into poverty.

The International Monetary Fund has forecast Pakistan’s economy will shrink 1.5% this year, and the government is expected to miss major revenue and deficit targets, making it more dependent on loans from multilateral lenders.

Prime Minister Imran noted that the situation of coronavirus outbreak in South Asian countries, including Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, in terms of the spread of virus as well as the peak, which was yet to come, was different from that of the United States and Europe, reported APP.

Major difference

The major difference between the developed and developing countries in terms of COVID-19 and the lockdown was that millions of people in the latter as against the West were facing starvation, he added.

The prime minister said Pakistan had geared up to cope with the challenges emerged in the wake of COVID-19 outbreak and think tanks, including the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC), were dealing with the situation through analysis of data and other measures on day to day basis.