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Friday August 19, 2022

PPP's Bilawal criticises govt for politicising COVID-19, reiterates proposal to work together

'Each crisis gives a chance to the leadership through which their realities are revealed,' says Bilawal

By Web Desk
May 11, 2020
Bilawal Bhutto addresses National Assembly's first session after suspension owing to COVID-19 in Islamabad on May 11, 2020. — Geo News/Screengrab via The News

ISLAMABAD: PPP Chairperson Bilawal Bhutto on Monday criticsed the federal government for politicising the COVID-19 pandemic but reiterated his proposal to set aside their political differences to cope with the ongoing crisis and provide relief to the nation.

Addressing the first NA session after suspensions owing to the coronavirus pandemic, Bilawal noted at the start of his speech that Prime Minister Imran Khan was not present during the NA session despite most leaders of the Opposition being there.

The realities of world leaders, such as US President Donald Trump and UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson, were exposed, he said.

"Each crisis gives a chance to the leadership through which their realities are revealed," Bilawal said. "I'm saddened to say that our prime minister — who is also the country's health minister — is not present in the NA session. He doesn’t think it's part of his job to brief this house and the country's people on the coronavirus [situation].

"This isn’t a battle of political statements, this is a part of the prime minister's job as the leader of the house," he added.

The current government expected the labourers and underprivileged groups "to put their lives in danger to earn their livelihoods and work in the industries — and the constructions sector — to run our economy".

Qureshi 'chose to target Sindh, 18th Amendment'

"As a leader, one should do what one expects from others," the PPP leader stated, adding that it would have been better if the premier had attended the NA session for he not only represented Pakistan but also the health ministry, "whose Special Assistant [Dr Zafar Mirza] is present here but cannot speak".

Bilawal said the participants were expecting a debate on national unity and the steps to spread awareness about the coronavirus pandemic. "Unfortunately, the foreign minister — who was assigned the task — chose to target Sindh and the 18th Amendment."

He explained that when the virus reached Pakistan, he had offered to PM Imran and his government to set aside the political differences and work together to tackle the pandemic.

"In response, my party, my chief minister [Murad Ali Shah], and my ministers received flak and verbal abuse from the highest level of government of Pakistan, which engaged in mudslinging at their efforts and hard work and in the character assassination of the people of my province.

"So much so that a leader of the ruling party went as far as to say that he contracted the coronavirus due to the illiteracy of the people of Sindh," Bilawal shot back.

The present was not the time to engage in politicking as "Pakistan has several problems at hand since the government took charge".

"Our health could not compete with the global world. It was crucial for our prime minister to lead the nation and act as the prime minister of our country and not the prime minister of the PTI only," he said.

"It was necessary for him to assure the nation that his government would safeguard their health and lives and take steps to deal with the economic hit from the coronavirus pandemic."

Bilawal said he had mentioned in his first press conference that Pakistan would have to fight this war on two fronts — namely the medical and protective steps to stop the spread of the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the efforts to protect the people's lives and health and, at the same time, provide relief to the poor.

Acknowledging FM Qureshi's remarks on better testing capacity, he said: “I agree with that — there has been an improvement in the testing capacity — India and Bangla cannot compete with our testing capacity.

"But the credit goes to provincial governments. In Sindh, we have bumped up our testing capacity the most, from 80 tests per day on the first day to more than 5,000 a day. That's a 600% increase!"

The PPP chair informed the NA that the federal government had promised Sindh two testing labs but had not delivered yet. The same, he added, was the case with the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government, which received no support from the centre.

"They've also improved the capacity; they were able to do a few tests earlier and are now capable of conducting a thousand tests per day," he said, adding that 90% of the resources used in the improvement — be it Sindh or KP — were from the provinces.

Bilawal added that National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) Chairperson Lt Gen Muhammad Afzal had set a 50,000-test target by himself. "Meanwhile, we haven’t been able to reach that point so far because the Centre is not supporting us in a way that it should and the damage is not limited to provinces," he said.

"Facts and statistics from around the world tells us that when testing capacity is low, the death ratio is the highest where there are the least tests conducted," he added, noting that the same was the case in the country.

"Pakistan has recorded the most deaths in the KP, which has conducted the least [number of tests] and has low testing capacity. But you [the federal government] cannot blame the PPP and CM Murad Ali Shah for that.

The Centre, he added, should have stood strong — shoulder-to-shoulder — with the provinces and worked with them. If the provinces spent Rs1, the federal government should have spent Rs 2 but that did not happen, he noted. "We can only request the Centre to play its part as the country’s government.

"Can you believe that at a time of war, the prime minister says Sindh and Balochistan should fight with their own resources and do you think that we would ever send our soldiers to war without firearms, boots, and uniform?"

The PPP leader said the disease, according to the World Health Organization (WHO) was spreading in Pakistan’s health professionals faster than others and the only reason for that might be that "we do not give our frontline soldiers the required PPEs [personal protective equipment]".

"I know how Sindh with so much difficulty guaranteed the PPEs' supply to the paramedics, doctors, and nurses who are in direct contact with the patients.

"But we need to do that for those in the emergency rooms as well. They are risking their lives and their families to battle this pandemic but we need to ensure that they have PPEs.

"We know it would be difficult. We, the provinces, cannot guarantee an international supply chain. Only the state of Pakistan can and it should ensure that the provinces have uninterrupted supply of testing kits and medical equipment, especially when the airports are closed.

Bilawal also underscored that while after 18th Amendment and the National Finance Commission (NFC) Award, the provinces were allocated funds, their annual health budget was not enough to fight the coronavirus pandemic.

"That's why the government of Sindh gave its budget to fighting it. We are trying to curtail wherever we can to tackle the disease and I believe that the other provinces will be doing the same.

"This is an international crisis!"

Current situation 'result of recklessness'

PML-N leader and member of the Opposition, Khawaja Asif, however, slammed the incumbent PTI-led government, saying it had exhibited "recklessness".

"What we face right now is the result of recklessness shown by the government during the lockdown in the past few months. Pakistan has still to face the peak in the coming months," Asif added.

The former foreign minister said quarantine centres were the major source for the spread of coronavirus. He also criticised the gap between what the ruling party had promised as compared to the current situation.

"Previously, we were told that the daily capacity to conduct coronavirus tests would expand to 50,000 tests per day.

"However, today, Foreign Minister Quershi is saying we have a testing capacity of 20,000 tests on daily basis for a population of over 212.2 million," he added.

Pakistan's testing capacity highest in S Asia

Earlier in the day, Pakistan has the highest coronavirus testing capacity to date among all South Asian countries at 20,000 tests a day, Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi informed the National Assembly on Monday — the first session after suspensions owing to the pandemic.

Noting that the COVID-19 pandemic was an "unprecedented challenge" that has become one of the biggest catalysts after the World War II, Qureshi said health experts around the world were trying their level best to come up with strategies to curb the virus till a vaccine could be made.

"Irrespective of Pakistan’s response towards the virus, no country around the world was seen fully prepared to battle out the virus," the federal minister said. "The world is learning with time."

Presenting the global figures from the US, UK, and European countries, including Italy, he said Pakistan — being a developing country — showed a constructive response, with growing testing capacity, which now stood at 20,000 tests a day.

Healthcare system was 'dissolved in 2010'

"Since the virus emerged, Pakistan had eight operational labs but now we have about 70 functional labs for the coronavirus. With improved testing capacity, we will get a clearer picture of the pandemic in the country," he added.

Referring to data, he said the mortality rate from coronavirus in Pakistan was 2.17% as opposed to 6.8% around the world, based on which "we made major decisions for the coming days while utilising the collective wisdom of all political leaders".

Speaking of Pakistan's healthcare system, he said it was "dissolved in 2010" and that the PML-N and PPP were previously responsible for the sector.

The minister told the NA that the political parties had earlier mutually decided to make decisions regarding the coronavirus lockdown in the National Coordination Committee's (NCC) sessions.

'National consensus'

"We formed two forums — the NCC, headed by Prime Minister Imran Khan, and the NCOC [National Command and Operation Centre], led by Planning Minister Asad Umar — to make decisions mutually while making use of collaborative efforts from all political leaders," he said.

He added that both the bodies met daily to monitor the coronavirus situation and response across Pakistan and to obtain updates from the provinces.

"Our aim is to build a national consensus while strategising the best for all provinces while providing flexibility" to them, he added. "COVID-19 is a national emergency and not a regional health hazard; therefore, we cannot make decisions while targeting regions."

Qureshi highlighted that Punjab's biggest quarantine centre was set up in Multan but did not have a single patient now. As for the Ehsaas Kifalat programme, he said it was "not restricted to any province" and that to date, some 2.3 million families have received aid in Sindh alone.

NA session summoned

President Dr Arif Alvi last week summoned the National Assembly session to debate Pakistan's current coronavirus situation, hours after PM Imran had announced that the government was moving towards easing the lockdown "in a phased manner".

However, Senate Deputy Chairperson Saleem Mandviwalla had suggested that sessions of both the houses of Parliament be postponed after two parliamentarians were found infected with coronavirus. "The virus has reached the parliamentary galleries,” he had said, expressing concern.

The Senate will regardless meet on Tuesday.

Moreover, Science and Technology Minister Fawad Chaudhry had proposed holding a virtual session of the parliament and slammed the opposition for refusing to support the initiative. "The Parliament session is necessary but people's health is also necessary," Chaudhry had said.

"The speaker [of the National Assembly] has contracted the coronavirus," he had added, referring to PTI leader Asad Qaiser, who had tested positive for COVID-19 alongside his son and daughter on April 30.

The federal minister had said he earlier proposed a virtual meeting. "We don't go to the Parliament to hug each other; one has to talk, make speeches," he noted.