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COVID-19 an Opportunity For Self-reliance On War Footings: Islamabad Webinar

DESPARDES — The pandemic is an opportunity for Pakistan to become self-reliant in pharmaceuticals, biomedical engineering and public health management on war footings, said speakers in a webinar held in capital Islamabad this week.

Called ‘Covid-19: Global Challenge, National Response’, the virtual assemble of experts was organized by Institute of Policy Studies (IPS) think tank where they stressed the need to quickly learn from the experiences as well as errors of other countries and evolve innovative and comprehensive policy options to tackle the virus-related issues.

“This is not the time for a popularity contest and so some tough decisions, which could be politically costly, have to be taken to save lives and the economy, some experts said.

Senior policy analyst Syed Muhammad Ali who a day earlier published a position paper proposing ‘National Crisis Government’ as best of three options was among the main speakers.

In his view, the longer critical decisions are delayed the more a country’s resources come under stress and it faces economic, political and social problems.

The IMF and World Bank have predicted the coronavirus could bring down country’s exports by US$3 billion.

The World Bank on Sunday predicted the country could face huge recession, in a first, in 68 years.

This month a huge dip of 70 percent in exports as compared to previous year was witnessed.

Former finance secretary Dr Waqar Masood Khan termed it a timely move by the government to seek from the country’s international lenders a rescheduling of the huge external public debt-related repayments till the crisis ends.

On Thursday, finance ministers of G-20 countries announced a major debt relief for 76 developing nations that included Pakistan. The IMF is also looking at giving Pakistan an additional $1.4 billion concessionary financing.

The decision by G-20 countries to give debt relief to developing countries will have substantial impact on Pakistan, allowing the country a much needed “fiscal space”. Pakistan annually spent $10 to $12 billion on debt servicing.

The relief could enable the country to look at several economic policy options, some Pakistani observers said.

Mr. Masood pointed out that a positive outcome of the crisis was that it had provided the country a chance to become self-reliant and overcome shortcomings. “Now was the time to grab new opportunities in various sectors, one of which is technology as this is the field of the future”.

He said a comprehensive policy should have been formulated through consultations between the federation, provinces and armed forces to counter the pandemic and the ensuing crisis. “The federal government initiated a lockdown quite late on March 25 and that too in a halfhearted manner; even now it is trying to pass the buck where responsibility is concerned”, he added.

Independent observers say COVID-19 is an existential threat and therefore a national security issue needing consensus-built front-loaded responses.

Mr. Ali said the government has submitted a report with the Supreme Court that it expects 50,000 positive cases of coronavirus by April 25. “So if the situation worsens, the government should declare food, healthcare, petroleum and banking sectors as critical and manage them directly”.

He stressed that ration distribution should be very effective in the areas that had been hit by insurgency in the past so that the anti-state elements are not able to exploit the crisis. Similarly, charity work and fund raising has to be legal, transparent and recorded to avoid serious consequences for Pakistan at Financial Action Task Force.

Ali said most of the strategic public sector organizations have more technical capacity than the private sector. As such the government has to decide which sectors can be used for crisis management. The Chamber of Commerce and Industry could review which goods can be produced locally by tailoring the production lines.

He was of the opinion that the large chain stores should create an app-based delivery system and collect payment through card swipe machines. The system could be extended to meat, poultry, milk, bakery and medical deliveries.

The senior policy expert reminded the session that the pandemic is the greatest threat to human lives since the Second World War and suggested calling an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council.

“The situation should be declared a global human security challenge and a coordinated and all-encompassing initiative launched for international collaboration in all dimensions.”

Mr. Khalid Rahman, the Executive President of IPS was of the view that the mosque as an institution could play a very positive and vital role in crisis management in the current situation. “At present this institution is in a state of disquiet but can attain a central position in the coronavirus fight if handled intelligently and by getting it on board.

He suggested making the beginning of Ramadan the terminal point ahead of which there could be consultations and efforts to get people on the same page regarding this issue.