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April 7, 2020

Mitigating contagion risks in workplaces


April 7, 2020

LAHORE: Economically we are in very bad shape, but are much stronger than we were at the time of independence. Through unity and resilience this nation rose from ashes to become a power to reckon with, and we can do it again.

This is the time to forget the past and consume all our energies on managing the deadly virus and putting all are minds on planning for the post coronavirus economy. This virus has hit the entire world and all economies whether big or small have been severely damaged.

So unlike the past economic crisis, we should not hope for some bailout package. We will have to come out on our own. Feeding the population is the greatest worry of all governments in the world. There are numerous countries that are facing food shortages. We are few of the lucky ones that grow our own food. We will have to guard this resource from hoarders, smugglers to avoid any chaos and shortages.

This is the time to forget past grievances, we are fighting a deadlier war than the past two world wars. We need unity. Those at the helm of the affairs should realise that they might have a sincere desire to tackle the issue, but this issue is much beyond their capacity.

There are certain actions that have to be taken on priority. A message from towel exporters would explain the problems faced by all valued-added exporters. Those relating to buyers are beyond the control of our government, but hiccups created at local level should be addressed immediately.

Tahir Jahangir, chairman, Towel Manufacturers Association of Pakistan, in consultation with Shabir Ahmad, chairman, Bed Wear Association of Pakistan, has pointed out that the factories of their members were closed since March 20.

As they are pure exporters they are entirely dependent on foreign markets which are highly competitive. Most of the export orders are cancelled. But those that have not been cancelled will not be shipped on time, giving the buyer an excuse to refuse the consignment or delay payments.

Containers of cancelled orders are piling up at the port and goods half prepared are rotting in the factories and workers are laid off. Many have fled back to their villages in terror of the unseen virus.

Those that remain are unable to work because of government edict – although many of them reside in the factory premises or have hired accommodation close by to their factories. The factories cannot work.

The situation is leading to a national catastrophe. The medical emergency will soon be superseded by a worse economic chaos, many have warned. Already there are hordes of day labourers hungry and frustrated – looking at the idle rich going by in their shiny cars. The associations urged the governments to sit with them, make emergency plans, and restart industrial and commercial life.

Exports must be permitted just as imports are flowing smoothly. We need not compromise on the social distancing, hygiene and precaution. Factories are far more capable of enforcing medical vigilance, and isolate suspects, than mere unprepared and untutored people. If we do not move now, we may lose the ability to even execute the orders that foreign buyers are still ready to accept.

We should also plan for what happens after the lockdown ends. This crisis has occurred when all our industries were on decline and have limited capacity to cope with further decline in demand (barring food and healthcare). But our financial system is still strong. The banks thrived on huge government borrowing (sadly not on industrial or commercial loaning).

Many industries in despair have even consumed their working capital and are on the verge of default. They would need financing from the banks when the industrial activities restart after this crisis is over.

Bankers would have to apply their mind to help all those industries that caved in because of this crisis. Economic planners, in consultation with experts from across the political divide should start devising prudent lending guidelines for the financial sector to ensure that efficient industries do not go into oblivion because of lack of finances.

Federal government and the provinces should be on one page to tackle the crisis. We should make a viable plan to restart certain activities in regions where the infection is very low or negligible.

Of course necessary precautions should be planned before opening any economic activity. Authentic data on infection levels would be of utmost important in this regard. Protective personal equipment and un-crowded transport for specific regions would have to be ensured and only those with required permission should be allowed to board that transport in protective gear. Factories would have to ensure adequate distancing at workplace.