Speaking at a press conference, PML-N President and leader of the opposition Shabaz Sharif presented a package of suggestions for effectively combating the corona virus pandemic which has brought tremendous pressure on the dilapidated healthcare system and the economy, which has been under stagflation since 2008 and recessionary trend had exacerbated during 2013-18. He questioned the rationale behind two different strategies adopted by the government regarding repatriation of stranded Pakistanis in China and Iran when the coronavirus broke out in these countries.
Leader of the opposition criticised the Prime Minister for not taking necessary steps earlier to contain the contagion from spreading. He called for convening the meeting of Council of Common Interest to decide about a comprehensive action plan like the National Action Plan which had been worked out what he claimed to have been formulated by PML-N leadership after the Army Public School attack in December 2014. Shabaz Sharif urged the government for import of ventilators, provision of personal protective equipment to doctors, nurses and paramedical staff who deal with coronavirus infections, and facility of free of cost tests for this virus. He demanded substantial reduction in the prices of petrol and diesel, lowering electricity and gas tariffs, reduction in interest rate by 3 to 4 percent and reasonable amount monthly stipend to daily-wage earners and other people who cannot afford basic necessities of life.
Although there were cogent reasons for not repatriating stranded Pakistanis from China an allowing a flood of “Zaereen” from Iran yet the modus operendi adopted in the case of latter category is difficult to justify. It caused spread of the virus across the country, hitting the provinces of Sindh and Punjab more. That is why World Health Organisation has cautioned against emergence of Italy like situation in Pakistan. There is no consensus about the total lockdown in all the federating units of the country. Sindh and GilgitBatistan have clamped complete lockdown but in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa and Punjab partial lockdown has been imposed. People in Punjab, particularly the industrial hub of Faisalabad, have violated it whereas citizens in big cities in Khyber Pukhtunkhwa, by and large, stayed at homes.
Leader of opposition demand for convening the meeting of Council of Common Interest immediately is justified for putting in place a comprehensive plan for combating coronavirus spread and proper treatment of infected people. Government is cognizant of the shortage of ventilators and protection equipment for doctors and medical staff and may have placed order for their import from China which has controlled the pandemic. Had previous two governments not neglected the healthcare system the number of well-equipped teaching level hospitals and district level hospitals would have been in the required number based on population density. In the 30 years long tenures of government, PML-N leadership did not construct new hospitals and utterly ignored expansion of health infrastructure in the existing ones in its powerbase Punjab Province. Hence charge-sheeting PTI government for not taking necessary measures for removing inefficiencies in healthcare system is unfounded accusation. Although coronavirus test-kits have been imported in sufficient number and its production in the country has been started yet the test can be provided subsidized and not free of cost.
Government is working on proposals to build strategic crude oil reserves by reaping the gains from glut in the international market and further lowering of prices of petroleum products. In the last PML-N government oil exploration and production activities had been halted as neither the expired leases of oil and gas companies were renewed nor were new licenses issued for exploration and production activities in the proven oil and gas reserve blocks. The policies of aversion electricity generation from renewable sources and pursuit of thermal power generation under shady deals by PPP and PML-N governments have made significant reduction in electricity tariff impossible. In the present government Council of Common Interest has already approved an incentive package for oil exploration and production companies in the high risk area of Baluchistan and tribal districts of Khyber Pukhtunkhwa to boost domestic production to keep POL prices reasonably low. Recipe of lowering interest rate alone may not work as it needs to be buttressed by fiscal incentives as abnormally low interest rate of 5.5 percent in the last PML-N government did not break the recessionary cycle of the economy. A relief package for poor has been announced and BISP stipend has increased from Rs.2000 to Rs.3000 card. Opposition leader suggestions are a mixed bag of point scoring.