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Government May Soon Ease Restrictions Further: Imran Khan

by Newsweek Pakistan
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File photo of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Aamir Qureshi—AFP

Pakistan’s prime minister says situation in Pakistan not as bad as other countries, so stringent lockdowns not needed

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday announced that the federal government is planning to further ease ongoing lockdowns designed to curb the spread of the coronavirus, as the “intensity” of the virus is much lower in Pakistan than in western states.

In a weekly press briefing, the prime minister reiterated his claims that there is greater risk of people dying due to poverty than COVID-19. “Conditions in Egypt are similar to those in Pakistan as the number of patients and deaths due to coronavirus is almost same,” he said, in an attempt to justify his claims that lockdowns should be further eased in the country.

The prime minister’s statement came a day before Pakistan reported its highest single-day jump in new infections, 990, taking the total number of confirmed cases to 16,817. Healthcare professionals are continuously urging the government to strengthen, not reduce the restrictions, warning they would not be able to cope with the expected surge in cases in the coming weeks.

The Sindh government has already announced that there would be no easing of restrictions before Eid, while Balochistan has warned that the rapid spread of the disease might prompt a ‘curfew-like’ lockdown to curb it. The PTI, led by Khan, rules in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, and the federal government, raising concerns that a lack of a coordinated response would defeat the point of preventative measures designed to curb the virus.

Khan said he had talked to Iranian and Egyptian leaderships and learnt that Tehran had reopened businesses and industries despite faring much worse than Pakistan in handling the coronavirus threat. What he failed to mention is that Iran’s peak hit on March 20, more than a month ago, and their easing is in line with World Health Organization recommendations. Pakistan has yet to reach its peak of coronavirus infections.

The prime minister said no one could predict how long the virus would continue to spread in the absence of a vaccine. “It can go further for six months or a year or its spike can hit again,” he said, even as he continued advocating easing restrictions, which all experts have repeatedly said would lead to a surge in infections. “Stay at home and observe social distancing when you go to mosques as this is a difficult time for our nation. If you don’t maintain social distancing and don’t follow preventive measures, we will all suffer,” he said.

“When you compare Pakistan to other countries, then our situation is much better. We were assuming that our hospitals would be full by now but then our situation is much better,” he said.

Khan also claimed the country had now become self-sufficient in medical equipment required for COVID-19 patients and healthcare workers, saying local industries were manufacturing ventilators and personal protective equipment (PPE) to combat the deadly virus.

Relief package

The prime minister also announced that the government was launching a second relief program to aid people unemployed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “I had decided to keep money gathered from the relief fund for the unemployed,” he said, adding an SMS campaign would be launched soon. The new scheme, he said, would support people out of jobs after they provided proof of unemployment.

“For every rupee donated, the government will match it with Rs. 4 in the fund,” he said, adding that the Corona Relief Tiger Force had been directed to set up a desk in each union council to check numbers of unemployed.

“There are many white-collar workers who have been unemployed and who will not come forward,” he said. “We will use imams of mosques to know who the unemployed people are.”

Lockdown considerations

Addressing the media, Planning Minister Asad Umar said that while the number of patients and deaths was increasing daily, the coronavirus situation was not yet out of control.

“After more than two months of monitoring the situation, we have formed our own analysis and decided our future line of action,” he said, claiming the trend of the virus was different in Pakistan than western states. “We will decide our future line of action next week and hope that we will be heading towards further ease,” he said, referring to the ongoing lockdown that is set to expire on May 9.

According to Umar, 21-22 deaths were being reported from COVID-19 daily, but the fatality rate was much lower than expectations. He said 50 to 60 people were on ventilators across the country.

Umar said the viral disease would see the country’s revenue target fall by 30-35 percent this year. “Pakistan is one of 15 countries which have been hit hard economically by COVID-19,” he claimed.

Better position

Comparing Pakistan to Iran, Special Assistant to the P.M. on Health Dr. Zafar Mirza said we had only 346 deaths against 5,000 in the neighboring country, again ignoring that Tehran has already hit its peak of COVID-19 infections. Pakistan was “comparatively in a better position,” he said, adding the government was “worried about medical workers” and would soon launch a program for the protection of staff working on the front lines of the pandemic. “We will train medics on proper use of PPE,” he said.

Ehsaas Cash Program

Special Assistant to the P.M. on Social Protection and Poverty Alleviation Sania Nishtar, meanwhile, said that all those registered for the Ehsaas cash disbursement program would receive a message within the next 10 days. She asked people not to visit distribution centers unless they received a message from 8171 so as not to create a rush and violate social distancing guidelines. “The government is working on resolving all problems that people are facing in collecting their amounts,” she added.

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