PM sets up Relief Fund, Tigers to combat virus

-Restrictions on goods transport lifted
-Asks provinces to keep food production, supply functional
-Says govt preparing for worst-case scenario

By Ajmal Khan Yousafzai

ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan has said that in view of increasing coronavirus cases in the country, the government has established a ‘Coronavirus Relief Fund’ while a force ‘Corona Relief Tigers’ consisting of youth and volunteers is also being constituted.
Addressing anchor persons in Islamabad, Imran said that registration for force will commence from March 31. He announced that an account is being opened for donation from overseas Pakistanis.
He said members of the force will be responsible to distribute food at doorsteps of the people across the country in case Covid-19 cases rise in any area.
He elaborated that the ‘Coronavirus Relief Fund will support daily wagers and poor segments of society affected by the coronavirus. “The fund will comprise money donated by the public while the government will also provide cash to the poor under its Ehsaas programme,” the premier said.
The PM said that restrictions on goods transport in the country are being lifted with immediate effect. He said that all goods transport will continue to operate to avoid shortage of food items and affect economy of the country.
He said all four provinces are working to devise a mechanism to ensure food industries and industries linked with food production remain functional. “We aim for people not to gather in one place but alongside this we want to avoid any obstacles in the supply of food.”
Imran Khan pointed out that the government is utilizing all resources to avoid creating panic in the country. He maintained that the government is taking decisions keeping in view the coronavirus situation and in the best interest of the masses.
The prime minister said despite the fact coronavirus has so far not spread as widely in Pakistan as in some western countries, there is no guarantee the disease cases will not sharply rise in the country in coming weeks. He said the government is now preparing for the “worst-case scenario”. “The lockdown in China succeeded but in America and Italy it failed,” the PM remarked.
On the occasion, he said that Taftan border lack facilities and the area is “barren”. He highlighted the Balochistan government did not have enough funds to provide adequate facilities to pilgrims and traders travelling from Iran.
“Dr Zafar visited Taftan border after the first case was reported but when he returned and gave us the report, we were horrified. Because the area lacked basic facilities.” He said, “There was no management in Taftan at all.”
The PM also ordered the police to release those people who were arrested during the lockdown.
A youth force labelled “corona relief tigers” will help mitigate the spread of the coronavirus in the country, Prime Minister Imran Khan announced on Friday.
“Recruitment for corona relief tigers will formally begin on March 31. We are calling upon all volunteers,” said the premier during a special briefing to the media. Noting that the virus has spread dramatically across the globe, with the United States emerging as the new epicentre, the premier said: “No one can say today what the situation will be two weeks down the line.”
“That’s why we have to be prepared for the worst case scenario (in Pakistan) in case the number of cases spikes,” he said.
Referring to President Alvi’s visit to China during which he was accompanied by Asad Umar and Foreign Mininster Shah Mahmood Qureshi, the premier said that the Pakistani delegation asked China how they controlled the situation at a time when there were close to 60,000 cases in Wuhan.
“It is important to note that when they enforced a lockdown, they delivered food to people’s homes.”
He said that Pakistani students recalled that the government would send supplies straight to their hostels. “In Pakistan, this is a tall order. Today, if we want to lockdown, we don’t have the infrastructure to get food to people’s homes.
“So I am announcing today, we are developing a special youth force. Preparations for this are in full swing. We will have a membership drive with the citizen’s portal,” said PM Imran.
He reminded everyone that “we have the world’s second largest youth population” which is a great source of strength for the nation. “The corona relief tigers will be sent all over Pakistan. We will map out where there is a spike in cases and these tigers will be sent to those areas to deliver essential supplies.”
The prime minister also announced a lifting of restrictions on transport . “We have also decided that factories, edible items and the energy sector […] industries attached to food items, will continue to function unhampered.
“Our aim is to not have people gather but all the while, there must be no obstruction to the supply side of things.
“This is a difficult balance to strike. We don’t want the virus to spread and we don’t want to have people dying in a bid to stop the virus,” said the premier.
He said restrictions on passenger transport will remain in place.
The prime minister said that in the coming week, a ‘corona fund’ will also be announced, which will welcome charitable donations so that the underpriveleged can be looked after.
“Data on our daily wagers is being collected. We will also dispense funds from the Ehsas programme and then this fund will be an added source to help people buy essential items for their families.”
Labelling this an unprecedented initiative and putting stock in people’s charitable spirits, the prime minister said that Pakistanis donate like no other nation in the world. He recalled earthquakes and floods which had wreaked much damage in the country but put no dent in people’s willingness to help.
“But what happened was there was a duplication of services. There were areas where there was a great amount of work done and some in which there was no one and people were left hungry,” said PM Imran. He said with the use of information technology and the Ehsas initiative, everyone who wishes to donate will be registered and will be able to see which areas need the most assistance.
“Everyone will know who is doing what and where.”
The premier acknowledged that in the backdrop of the crisis, Pakistan will see a drop in remittances and foreign exchange reserves will be impacted.
To counter this, he said an account will be opened in State Bank of Pakistan, for which details will be provided on Monday or Tuesday.
“Right now, the Pakistani people are most in need of donations from abroad. I want overseas Pakistanis to deposit their money here so pressure from our foreign exchange reserves is relieved,” said the prime minister. “This will be the fund that will pull the country out from these difficult times.” The premier then addressed the matter of a shortage of food items, especially wheat, clarifying that there is only the problem of transporting it due to lockdowns. Federal Minister for Food Security Khusro Bakhtiar then provided “an exact picture” of the situation.
He said that tabulations for seven essential food items had been done to ascertain their stock across various districts.
“Where there is a shortage, the province will fulfil the demand. We have mapped out the country’s transport needs for this.” He said that there had been a run on wheat due to the lockdowns and then there had been wheat procurement which Sindh and Passco (Pakistan Agricultural Storage and Services Corporation) had undertaken.
“Provinces are completing their targets and our aim is to not involve the private sector at this point.
“We have developed a mechanism with all the provinces today under which a certain quantity will be bought from Sindh by Sindh government, Pasco and the private sector,” explained Bakhtiar.
The wheat will be brought to Punjab and delivered to KP as per the quantity determined, he said. An agreement with the floor mills association was also made, said the minister. “Under the agreement, the ratio of wheat to wheat flour has been increased by 20 per cent. So the same amount of wheat will now yield more and better quality wheat flour.”
“And we will advise Sindh and other provinces to adopt this policy.”
He said there was plentiful supply of wheat — 1.6 tonnes to be precise — currently available in the public sector. “Wheat harvest has begun in Sindh and will be done in the country’s northern regions as well, soon. This is enough to cater to the demand until next season.” He expressed confidence that supply chains will function smoothly in a day or two.