Situation can become tricky in 3-4 weeks: MPs’ body

QUETTA/ISLAMABAD: The Parliamentary Committee on Coronavirus on Thursday said that the next three or four weeks could become risky regarding the spread of coronavirus in Pakistan, while Prime Minister Imran Khan also said the situation could worsen in the coming months.

The parliamentary body was told that Pakistan Stock Exchange index was reduced by 21 percent since mid February, rupee was weakened by 3 percent, while exports and remittances have also been decreased.

The prime minister said poverty ratio was increasing rapidly due to coronavirus lockdown. He said the big cities like Karachi and Lahore will be affected more if the disease spread further.

Addressing the Balochistan cabinet and members of the Parliament during his Quetta visit, Imran Khan said the COVID-19 has become a challenge for the entire world, including Pakistan. “We will fight as a nation against the coronavirus pandemic that has gripped almost the entire world,” he added.

The prime minister alongside federal ministers Asad Umar and Zubaida Jalal visited Quetta to assess the coronavirus situation in Balochistan. Sharing his apprehensions that the conditions could worsen in the coming months, the premier said the government was closely monitoring the situation in Pakistan and keeping an eye on global dynamics where developed countries such as the US, China, and most parts of Europe have taken measures to stem the spread of COVID-19.

Touching upon the coronavirus cases in Balochistan, Imran Khan said it was an encouraging fact that there was no serious case in the province till now. However, he added, Balochistan might economically suffer the most due to the lockdown.

“We will offer all possible assistance to the government of Balochistan in tackling coronavirus. We will provide all resources to Balochistan,” he said. “I understand very well the challenges poor people are facing during the lockdown. A workable economic strategy should be made to reduce as much as possible the challenges the poor people are facing,” he said, adding, “The provincial governments should take concrete steps to ensure an uninterrupted supply of food items.”

The premier said the provinces were to inform the federal government on April 14 on what steps they could take to ease the lockdown. He said the centre and the provincial governments were on the same page. He said it was provincial governments’ call to end or continue the lockdown. He said the provinces would make decisions by analysing the situation in their respective regions.

“Pakistan has also sought help from China by learning from their experience of fighting coronavirus,” Imran Khan said. During the PM’s visit to a quarantine centre at Bolan Medical College Hospital, the provincial chief secretary briefed him about the facilities provided to the patients there. He was also briefed about the ongoing situation as well as the steps the authorities have taken to stem the spread of the virus in the province.

Meanwhile, the second meeting of the Parliamentary Committee on Coronavirus was held in Islamabad under the chairmanship of Speaker National Assembly Asad Qaiser. Addressing the meeting, the speaker said the main objective of the committee is to give the priority of inputs that would be obtained from the Members of the Parliament and the recommendations of the committee would be forwarded to the government for implementation. The speaker further said that the representatives of provinces will be called in the next meeting for taking inputs on the disease as well as efforts being made at their end. He said a committee has also been constituted resolving the issue of Tableeghi Jamaat and Zaireen led by Minister for States and Frontier Regions Shaharyar Afridi.

Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi told the committee that main object of the committee is to collect inputs form political leaders and send to National Command and Operation Centre and National Coordination Committee for taking further inputs and decisions. He said the role of parliamentary committee would be oversight the activities made by the government relating to COVID-19.

The meeting was briefed about economic and business plan for revival of economy, overall situation of coronavirus and terms of reference (ToRs) and Rules of Procedure for the Parliamentary Committee on Coronavirus.

The opposition members in the committee raised serious concerns over the government’s ‘Tiger Force’ saying that the government was politicising the relief programme with its party colours and using the government funds for the political publicity of the PTI.

After detailed discussion, the ToRs approved by the committee were as under:

1. To create and promote national harmony amongst federal and federating units including Gilgit-Baltistan and Azad Jammu and Kashmir for evolving unanimous narrative on the issues relating to current pandemic (COVID-19).

2. Parliamentarian should be given monitoring role Viz-a-Vis NDMA and relief operations.

3. How often the committee should meet (it depends upon Speaker, National Assembly of Pakistan).

4. How efficiently we can use this forum, Parliament and standing committees to perform their functions in wake of this pandemic?

5. How can we mobilise all our resources at all levels to ensure our health system effectively functioning?

6. Coronavirus in Pakistan is interlinked with poverty and hunger. What immediate innovative steps besides already being taken by governments at all levels need to be identified and enforced to evolve strategy and mechanism to ensure provision of basic essential edibles to the needy & poor?

7. To oversee the testing facilities throughout the country and bureaucratic bottlenecks, if any, should quickly be removed in procuring immediate necessary health related items at all levels.

8. To take measures and steps to ensure and facilitate the role of private sector health services in regard to COVID-19.

9. SOPs of the NDMA to ensure equitable distribution of cash/relief packages to needy avoiding overlapping from various agencies of the federal and provincial governments and taking all NGOs and civil society on board.

10. What immediate steps are required to protect the economy?

11. To engage media in creating and promoting national narrative on COVID-19.

The opposition members raised a number of questions in the committee over non-availability of ventilators, testing kits and other equipment required for coronavirus patients and utilisation of funds received for said disease by the government.

The opposition members questioned in the meeting that what were the functions of the committee, what role and procedure will be adopted by the government for distributions of food and medical items at union council level.

They questioned that whether elected representatives must be included in distribution of items relating to said disease and whether a representation will be given in NDMA and National Health Services, Regulation and Coordination.

The PPP Parliamentary Leader Senator Sherry Rehman said that after Prime Minister’s speech on the virus, his cabinet needed to give the people a proper trajectory of the disease as is being done in other countries. “But there was no proper briefing of the path ahead, the medical emergency being met, or even clarity on what to expect given the rising numbers,” she said.

The PML-N parliamentary leader in National Assembly Khawaja Muhammad Asif said the government cannot fight alone with this global pandemic. He said the government may use the funds of BISP and Ehsaas programme, but it shouldn’t do politics in distribution of the funds.

Khawaja Asif said the PTI government should avoid the use of government funds with the colours of the PTI flag as it only divides the nation at a time when the country needs unity.

He questioned about the purpose of creation of Tiger Force and said that the Force is only politics and negation of the national harmony. “Don’t use the government funds for the promotion of the political party,” he said.

He said the lathi charge on the doctors should be condemned as the hand which need stethoscopes were handcuffed and baton charged. He said the government should prepare the plan for ensuring the supply of food as the month of Ramazan is approaching.

Former prime minister Raja Pervaiz Ashraf said that the next three weeks will be crucial and we should prepare ourselves to deal it. He also questioned the government’s plan for open the construction sector and also sought explanation with regard to Tiger Force.

Advisor to Prime Minister on Finance, Economic Affairs and Revenue Dr Abdul Hafeez Sheikh briefed the committee on economic impact and told the committee that economy was improving before corona and reserves were increasing while the inflation decreased in February. He told the committee that the exports increases by 3 percent and imports decreased by 18 percent and the rupee stabilised while the budget deficit reduced by 2.3 percent of GDP.

He told the committee that global recession after coronavirus also hit Pakistan as stock exchange index reduced by 21 percent since mid February. He told the committee that $1.4 billion investment portfolio decreased while the rupees weakened by 3 percent. He said the IMF estimates less growth in GDP 2021, while exports and remittances have also been decreased.

He said the government has given a relief package of Rs1,240 billion. He told the committee that the tax relief on food items and relief of Rs170 billion on petroleum products has also been provided to the people.

Adviser to PM on Commerce Abdul Razak Dawood said a relief of Rs100 billion has been given to exporters and another relief package of Rs100 billion to Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) and agricultural sector was being provided.

Sheikh Rashid Ahmed, Minister for Railways, said tests of coronavirus patients should be increased and ventilators are short in the county.

Hammad Azhar, Minister for Industries and Production, told in the meeting that SOPs for distribution of food items have been provided to the government of Punjab and NGOs.