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ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday challenged members of the National Assembly "to point out a single contradiction" in his statements on the response to the pandemic, saying Pakistan was not confused.
In a rare appearance in an NA session, PM Imran defended his government's coronavirus response after it came under criticism from opposition for being "confused".
"We bore a lot of criticism in the beginning to impose a stricter lockdown. There was a lot of pressure on me. From my own people. From my own cabinet to impose something like India [did]," said the premier. "The world has been experimenting in their own ways.
"Repeatedly, it is being said there was confusion. Mr Speaker, if there was any government in the world that wasn't confused it was ours. Since day one," he added.
PM Imran also challenged the Opposition to point out any conflicting statements he may have made ever since Pakistan imposed the lockdown.
"I want to challenge you to point out a single contradiction in my statements since we imposed the lockdown on March 13," he said.
Conditions different from Western countries
PM Imran reiterated that Pakistan's population density, circumstances, and economic conditions were different from the Chinese city of Wuhan, Singapore, and New Zealand.
The premier said that if Pakistan followed the lockdown policies of the western governments, then it would mean difficulties for the poor.
"I have always held that if you have Singapore's population, an income of $50,000 per capita, if you have natural social distancing, then the best thing is to impose a curfew.
"I also said that our conditions are such, we have to think of the impact on the poor. These have been consistent statements on my behalf. You have all my speeches on record," he said.
The premier paid a special tribute to the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) as Pakistan has data to act on due to its efforts to establish proper coordination between provinces.
"We had no figures previously for how many ventilators exist in Pakistan, how many intensive care beds there are, how much staff is available," he said.
India's failed lockdown policy
He said India's example of a failed lockdown policy was being highlighted everywhere, including by The New York Times. As a result, he commented, 34% people have been pushed into poverty there.
"The poor people have been crushed. There are thousands on the road. Transport has been shut. People have died on the road," he said, highlighting the impact of a strict lockdown on the poor people in India.
Even in America, people can see that cases are constantly ballooning and they have had to accept they have to reopen their economies, he added.
"They, too, are realising that even the world's most powerful economy cannot endure the effects of a lockdown," he said, continuing to defend his government's decision to ease curbs.
"We were the first to talk of a smart lockdown. It was the NCOC," he said.
Smart lockdown aims to protect sick, elderly
The prime minister said the next phase was a difficult one, with the government challenged to impress upon people the importance of following standard operating procedures.
"We have to provide people a source of income but [...] whenever there are clusters [of people], the disease spreads. We also know that if we do not exercise caution, the existing pressure on hospital will only worsen."
"So whoever is watching, it is necessary for all of us to make people realise how important is is to save our elders, the sick, those who have blood pressure [issues] and diabetes. The real aim behind a smart lockdown is to protect these people," he said.
The premier also stopped to extend his condolences to the families of the 4,000 people to have died from COVID-19.
"If we exercise caution, our facilities are enough to be able to cope with it," he said, adding regretfully that he receives reports daily of how enough precaution is not being taken.
He reiterated that if people continue to be careful, the month will go by "without any further adverse impacts".
'Govt not hiding behind coronavirus'
The premier also addressed concerns that the government is "hiding behind the coronavirus crisis".
The world's economy had suffered a $12.3 trillion setback due to the crisis, quoting figures released by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) today, he said.
Speaking further of individual economies, PM Imran said Britain had experienced a 20% shrinkage and its growth has gone into the negative territory. "The whole world is saying that this is the worst economic crisis in a 100 years.
"England has had 40,000 deaths. But the number of deaths have nothing to do with any of this. When you shut down the economy, it does not make a difference how many deaths occur.
"The point is, what impact does it have on the economy?"
He said there was no telling how much further losses the world's economy would suffer and how long it would take for a full recovery. "Industries have been shuttered that will never be revived again. The services industry, tourism sector, and airlines have all gone into a crisis.
"So I found this idea very strange that we are 'hiding behind the coronavirus crisis'."
'I am the country's biggest fundraiser'
The prime minister also sought it pertinent to provide a "background" on the kind of economy that the PTI government had inherited.
"It is not as if Switzerland's economy was handed over to us," he said, before detailing the government's current account deficit — $20 billion — as well as the import and export levels in comparison, $60 billion and $20 billion, respectively.
He said the current account deficit was a figure that everyone looked to when gauging an economy’s health. Owing to shrinking dollar levels, he said the rupee witnessed a decline in value and imports became expensive, including oil, which impacted electricity prices and, in turn, the cost of everything else.
"Of course, poverty and inflation had to rise. We did not mount this deficit. We had inherited it," he said, adding that half of the government's tax collection went towards paying off liabilities.
"I am the country's biggest fundraiser. I never felt ashamed asking for money from Pakistanis for our own country — for hospitals, universities, [and] earthquakes.
"But the shame that I felt when I went to other countries to ask for money [was like none other]. No matter how much of a well-wisher a country is, when you ask them for money, they get a look in their eyes. It was a great shame not just for me but for our country as well," said the premier.
"We were close to a default. It wasn't our fault. It was our bad lack to have had the kind of leadership that we had in the past."
PM 'like a father to a nation'
He then went on to castigate the Opposition for incurring heavy expenses on foreign tours.
“A prime minister is like a father to a nation, with the people of the country like his children. If my children are hungry, if I am unable to provide them treatment, will I live like a king? Will I not cut down my expenses? This reflects a mindset”
He then provided a breakdown of all the expenses incurred by the incumbent government on foreign tours compared to the extravagant figures reported in past government tenures.
"In Washington, I spent $67,189, whereas Nawaz Sharif spent $549,000 and Asif Ali Zardari spent $752,000.
"Did their leaders think: 'Oh what impressive people they are?' I dare say a Western democracy leader wouldn't spend as much as they did."
He also included figures for UN and Davos visits.
"Do they not know every dollar is important? You build a culture which is impressed upon people [...] When a country implements austerity, rulers lead by example."
'Martyred' Osama Bin Laden
The premier also spoke at length on Pakistan’s success in its foreign policy during the incumbent government's tenure and paid tribute to the foreign ministry and its head, Shah Mahmood Qureshi. He recalled how this success was not enjoyed in the past 10 years or so.
"We supported America's war on terror but we had to pay a heavy price and were humiliated instead. We supported them but they only blamed us," he noted.
"They were not successful in Afghanistan and they blamed us for that too."
He said two incidents mark a dark chapter in Pakistan’s history. "One is when the Americans came to Abbottabad and killed Osama Bin Laden. They martyred him. The whole world taunted us and humiliated us.
"Our own ally comes to our country and kills someone and does not even tell us. And 70,000 forces of ours had died for their fight," he said, recalling the incident.
The prime minister said drone attacks were another source of embarrassment. He said Senator Carl Levin asked Admiral Michael Mullen why he attacked Pakistan "when we object to it" but Mullen said they do so "with Pakistan’s permission".
Pakistani diaspora faced embarrassment
The premier said the Pakistani people for a long time could not decide whether the country was an ally of the US or not.
"And what does he (Mullen) say in return? He said 'why does the Pakistani government not tell their people the truth?'"
The Pakistani diaspora abroad had to face a great deal of embarrassment, he said.
The premier said the incumbent government's policy was not never participate in war, only in peace talks. "Senator Lindsey Graham came here and endorsed our view that there is no military solution, only a political situation in Afghanistan," he added.
He said there was now a relationship "of trust" where "no one is now humiliating us". US President Donald Trump "meets us with respect and requests us for help in bringing peace in Afghanistan."
Battling 'fascist, Nazi-inspired Hindutva approach'
PM Imran said everyone now acknowledged Pakistan's role in Afghan peace talks.
He also spoke of Pakistan's role as a mediator at the request of Saudi Arabia and Iran. "We will be a country to unite the Muslim ummah."
Speaking of India, he said: "We are battling with a fascist, Nazi-inspired Hindutva approach that is a threat to the region. [Modi] is a fanatic and is not only a menace for Muslims but also Hindus [...] He is not a normal man."
He said he spoke to people abroad and that the NYT's editorial board did its own investigation. "American media had never spoken out for Kashmir, never was India criticised like it is today. Now, Pakistan receives better reception than India abroad."
"The issue was raised twice in United Nations [...] and today you see all Western newspapers are taking RSS to task.
"We wanted to take this further but a new drama began," referring to the JUI-F chief Fazlur Rehman's sit-in.
"The Kashmir issue has reached a point of no return," said the premier, adding that the movement "will not be stopped now".