Pakistani opposition calls for immediate lockdown to prevent coronavirus spread

Economically Pakistan is in dire strait under Imran Khan, who has failed to garner international support against India over Kashmir and Opposition has pushed him into a corner with no room for escape. Photo by the India Today. Sketched by the Pan Pacific Agency.

LAHORE, Mar 25, 2020, Pakistan Today. An All Parties Conference (APC) co-hosted by Pakistan People’s Party (PPP) Chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) President Shehbaz Sharif via video link urged the government to announce an immediate lockdown to prevent the spread of coronavirus, which has so far infected nearly 1,000 people across the country, Pakistan Today reported.

According to a statement issued after the meeting, all parties agreed that by now the government should have called such a conference and set in motion a comprehensive National Action Plan (NAP) with all stakeholders on board. It is a matter of grave national concern, and all political leaders have pledged on their own to unite against what needs to be a war effort, but a single day’s delay in taking decisions are costing valuable lives, they added.

They said that messaging for public safety is crucial in changing social attitudes, and all resources, including private TV channels as well as the clergy, must be nationally engaged by the federal leadership to use their pulpits for amplification of life-saving messages.

The parties called for a national task force, which should include all representatives of all political parties. They said that immediate actions must include health sector actions, economic management and public messaging that must use all platforms for protecting the public as well as the medical workers on the frontlines of this fight.

Paying tribute to Dr Usama Riaz, who passed away after getting infected from the virus while attending patients, they said that doctors like him must be appreciated with the highest civil awards, and the entire medical community should be given protective gear before anything else.

The opposition parties condemned the leadership deficit on the part of the federal government, and demanded that crisis management committees be formed at all levels, from the provinces to the local bodies tiers, with all parties representation be formed immediately by government in order to manage the ravages of this unprecedented risk to Pakistan and all humanity. They said that relief efforts must use local bodies as well for outreach, while philanthropic and volunteer efforts should be streamlined.

The conference was united and vociferous in appreciating the Sindh government’s efforts and CM’s proactive leadership. Sindh’s charter of demands, which were endorsed by all leaders include the federal government’s urgent operationalisation of an effective national lockdown, because without full coverage and coordination across the country, one province cannot continue to impose effective containment measures on its own. They said that this should include the suspension of all public transport, including passenger trains, however, private transport may be allowed in case of immediate need.

They also said that in case the federal government cannot impose this, it must go for a full lockdown. The lockdown should be coupled with expanding capacity for testing, beds, ventilators, ICU facilities, PPE, and isolation centres to be effective, they added.

The opposition parties said that pooerest of the poor must be immediately protected by using the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) data and other poverty alleviation programmes to identify the most vulnerable must be used and then providing Rs15000 to each household. For fast-tracking such delivery, the provinces must be allowed to negotiate with foreign governments and international donor agencies directly, they added.

The parties agreed that testing capacity as well as general health service capacity be immediately enhanced to identify affected patients. Government-run isolation centres are urgently needed for treating patients, and large scale-testing capacity kits and PPE for health professionals, they added.

The meeting also unanimously agreed that electricity bills up to Rs5,000 and gas bills up to Rs2,000 should be paid by the state as Sindh has pledged. To promote economic activity, interest rates need to be slashed, and oil price reductions be passed to Sindh as well, the attendees added.

All emphasised that this should be a national approach, with no province left out of the consultative loop and suggested that Prime Minister Imran Khan should call meeting of Council of Common Interest (CCI) on daily basis so that all the federations units are on board and no one is left behind.

All parties endorsed PML-N’s national corona strategy presented by Shehbaz and urged the restoration of local governments that are closest to communities so that they can play an effective role in any community-related initiative.

While urging immediate lockdown to save lives, the committee advised immediate steps to give daily-wagers, small businesses and all vulnerable groups real relief, not just token announcements made too little, too late. This, they agreed, will only be made possible by making timely, coordinated policy in consultation with all provinces.

As part of the wage and ration lifeline provision to vulnerable sections of Pakistan, the APC repeatedly emphasized that the government must do more. The attendees said that relief on global oil prices must be passed on to the poor, while industries that pay daily wage earners who cannot come to work must continue to pay salaries as Sindh has legally mandated, while giving advances and other benefits in times of such distress. The BISP income support supply lines must be scaled up, while subsidies and food ration distribution must be made a priority and industries and big employers that need a stimulus package must be given that, like the world over, they added.

The scale of the medical emergency is huge, and can scale up exponentially in weeks, the APC observed, and called for immediate actions to be taken to reduce dangerous gaps in testing kits, hospital beds, quarantine capacity, protective gear for health workers and ventilators.

They attendees said that whenever a vaccine is made available, it must be provided directly to provinces, while border quarantine facilities must be real quarantines, with hygienic testing facilities at border entry points on all sides. The Taftan quarantine experience was highly contaminating, and instead of quarantining or containing the virus, proved to be the point of real contagion for many, because they were not tested at all, and must be avoided at all costs, the attendees added.

All agreed that lockdowns and social distancing is critical to flattening the curve of the pandemic, but that it is not enough.

All parties also condemned the growing atmosphere of media coercion and the restrictions on freedom of speech, including the arrest of Mir Shakilur Rehman, and demanded the government’s focus on solving Pakistan’s urgent issues instead of political vendettas. The meeting also urged to pay all the dues of media on urgent basis so that they can effectively play their role as fourth pillar of the state

The meeting was attended by the leaders of Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N), Muttahida Qaumi Movement-Pakistan (MQM-P), Jamaat-e-Islami (JI), Balochistan National Party-Mengal (BNP-M) among other parties.

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