Govt aims to strike balance between lockdown, running economy: Asad

-Says NCC to decide lockdown strategy
-vows all out efforts to fulfill public livelihood needs
-Cabinet approves 1,200b relief package

By Uzma Zafar

ISLAMABAD: Minister for Planning, Development and Special Initiatives Asad Umar said on Tuesday that it is important for the government to strike a balance between preventing the spread of the coronavirus and keeping the economy running.
He made these remarks during a joint press conference with Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Hammad Azhar and Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza in Islamabad.
“In a country like Pakistan, if we say we won’t have a lockdown at all, the disease will spread very fast and people will start losing jobs because they will be too sick […] there is no country in the world that would say it is not going to enforce a lockdown,” he reasoned.
“But if you enforce too strict a lockdown, people won’t get food and then there is no way they will not come out on the streets and our efforts to control the spread will fail,” he added.
The minister added that the government had formed a National Command Centre which would start functioning from today. Representatives from all the departments working to combat the Covid-19 pandemic and from all the provinces have been included in the command centre, he said.
“During the last meeting of the National Coordination Committee, we decided to increase cooperation on an operational level to ensure that voices of the provinces are heard at the federal level and federal decisions are easily communicated to the provinces,” he said. He added that the National Command Centre would be headed by Lt General Mehmood-uz-Zaman. Umar said that the government has created a mechanism through the NCC and the National Command Centre to monitor utility stores throughout the country, adding that the government had allocated Rs50 billion to be given to utility stores. He also said that the government would ensure that some remote areas in the country that previously imported goods from Iran received all the essential items.
Umar urged the nation to not treat coronavirus patients like “criminals”, adding that it would lead to people not reporting symptoms out of fear. He asked the authorities to ensure that it does not happen. SAPM Mirza also said that reports of patients being criminalised were “extremely saddening”. He added that this would scare people and they would not come forward to report cases and thus harm the government’s efforts to stop the spread of the virus.
‘Have to ensure production of essential items continues’
Meanwhile, Hammad Azhar said that it was important to continue production of essential items and to keep such industries and their value-chain industries running.
Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Hammad Azhar said that there was no need for hoarding and panic-buying.”We have made lists of retailers, manufacturers and industries that produce these items. We have distributed these lists to provinces (which were compiled with their help) … that these industries need to continue production, and we need to ensure that raw material and the labour needed are given to them.”
Adding that there was no need for hoarding and panic-buying, he said that the government was working day and night to ensure that the demand for essential items could be met.
The federal cabinet reviewed and approved the Rs1,200 billion economic relief package on Tuesday, which was announced by Prime Minister Imran Khan last week to deal with the coronavirus outbreak and its repercussions in Pakistan.
During the meeting, which also deliberated upon the government’s steps to check the COVID-19 pandemic, PM Imran took notice of the reports claiming that goods of the country’s exporters were being stopped. “Exporters’ goods, as well as goods’ transport, should not be halted,” the premier said.
The Cabinet was briefed on the measures being taken to tackle the worsening pandemic.
Sources had earlier said the Power Division was expected to brief the ministers about the circular debt, as well as supply and tariff issues, amidst a country-wide lockdown to contain the spread of the virus. The meeting was also set to review the epidemic’s impacts on the national economy and give final approval to the relief package announced by the premier to mitigate the crisis. The Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) had on Monday finalised a Rs1.2-trillion package, including a Rs100-billion supplementary grant, for an Emergency Relief Fund to combat the virus.
The ECC had also approved a special package for relief to 12 million poor families through cash assistance under the Ehsaas Programme. Cash grants would be provided under the Kafalat program and emergency cash assistance to the poor on the recommendation of the district administration. The assistance would be provided for four months as a one-time dispensation.
The cash would be provided either in one Rs12,000 installment through Kafalat partner banks — Bank Alfalah and Habib Bank Limited — after biometric verification or in two installments of Rs6,000 each.
Addressing the nation on Monday night, PM Imran had said the coronavirus would be confronted by the force of faith and announced the government’s measures to contain the epidemic.
The premier had said China locked down Wuhan to contain the virus. “Had Pakistan’s situation been similar to China’s, I would have ordered a lockdown in our cities as well,” he said.
The prime minister noted that 25% of Pakistan’s population were the poor who could not afford two meals a day. “If the government is unable to look after the unemployed, the lockdown will not be successful,” he maintained. “This disease does not differentiate between the poor and the rich,” he remarked, citing the example of British Prime Minister Boris Johnson who had contracted the infection as well. Azhar said the Cabinet had approved an Economic Stimulus and Relief Package which had already been approved by the Economic Coordination Committee a day earlier.
The package included:
Rs200bn for daily-wagers
Arrangements to delay interest payments on loans by six months for industries
Increased quota of deserving people
Rs50bn for utility stores
Reduced petrol and diesel prices
Increased number of labs and testing kits
Umar also said that the number of labs that could carry out tests for coronavirus had increased from 13 to 30 and would increase to 32 in the coming days. He added that the current testing capacity was 280,000 which was expected to increase to 900,000 by April 15.
SAPM Mirza added that the government would also acquire a synthesiser in a few weeks which would enable the country to start producing testing kits on its own. Saying it was the responsibility of the nation to defend its medical staff, Umar added the National Disaster Management Authority had distributed 16,700 personal protective equipment (PPE) to hospitals in every province of the country and it aimed to get PPE to doctors all across Pakistan by April 5.
Referring to the striking of balance between preventing the spread of the coronavirus and ensuring the continued production of essential items, Mirza said that the government would issue two sets of guidelines — for the people who would work in those industries and the people who would go out to buy essential items on its website on Wednesday.
Mirza added that there had been a big increase in the number of suspected patients in the last 24 hours and urged people to follow the preventive measures announced by the government to stop the spread of the disease.
Federal Minister for Planning and Development Asad Umar announced that the sixth meeting of National Coordination Committee (NCC) is going to be held tomorrow (Wednesday) which will be chaired by Prime Minister Imran Khan to review the current situation of coronavirus pandemic, media reported on Tuesday. Asad Umar was addressing a press conference alongside Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Hammad Azhar and Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza in Islamabad today.
The minister announced that the authorities will hold meetings on a daily basis at National Command Centre which will be attended by the representatives of federal government and provinces to review coronavirus situation.
“All provinces are given representation to enhance coordination among Centre and provinces. COVID-19 is a global issue and Pakistan is also fighting a war against the pandemic. If we avoid lockdowns and restrictions, then there are risks for further spread of the disease. The government is mulling over solutions to end chances of hunger and poverty among nationals through a solid strategy.” Umar urged to fulfil the financial needs of the people besides overcoming coronavirus pandemic, otherwise, there would be no benefit by imposing restrictions. He added that all efforts were being made after putting aside all political associations. He detailed that Utility Stores Corporation (USC) has been given Rs50 billion funds to ensure supplies of essential commodities and further measures were underway to fulfil needs of the nationals living in far-flung areas of the country. “PM Imran Khan has ordered to give special attention over flour and released directives to the chief secretaries of all provinces regarding the wheat crops. There is no shortage of flour in Pakistan and people must avoid hoarding essential goods.
“The meeting to be chaired by the premier will be attended by chief ministers. A strategy will be finalized in the upcoming session regarding lockdown and restrictions to contain COVID-19. Nationals will be apprised the duration and other details of the lockdown.”
Umar said 12 million families will be given Rs12,000 under the relief mechanism devised by the federal government. Elaborating the government’s initiatives for COVID-19 testing, Umar announced that the number of laboratories for coronavirus screening will be increased to 32 across the country as the authorities are consistently making efforts to strengthen screening capabilities. He added Pakistan will take its COVID-19 testing capacity to 900,000 till April 15.
“It is our top priority to protect medical staff and their requirements are being fulfilled by the federal government,” said the minister. The minister also advised nationals not to treat COVID-19 patients like criminals. He said the patients are human beings and need your attention. Umar added that the affected people will hesitate to tell about infection if they were mistreated.