PM urges world to think of 'debt-write offs' to help nations like Pakistan cope with virus

Updated 17 Mar 2020

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Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks to The Associated Press, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Monday, March 16. — AP
Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks to The Associated Press, in Islamabad, Pakistan, on Monday, March 16. — AP

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Monday said he feared the new coronavirus would devastate economies of developing nations and warned the developed world economies to "prepare to write off the debts" of the world's poorer countries.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Prime Minister Imran said: "My worry is poverty and hunger.”

"The world community has to think of some sort of a debt write-off for countries like us, which are very vulnerable, at least that will help us in coping with (the coronavirus)."

He also called for lifting sanctions against Iran, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.

The premier sat down with AP at his office in Islamabad. He'd spent much of his day meeting experts about the effect of the coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan, which has confirmed 193 cases so far.

He said that if a serious outbreak of the pandemic happens in Pakistan, he is worried that his government's efforts to lift the ailing economy out of near-collapse would begin an unstoppable slide backward.

Exports would fall off, unemployment would soar and an onerous national debt would become an impossible burden. Pakistan secured a $6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund last year.

"It's not just Pakistan. I would imagine the same in India, in the subcontinent, in African countries," he said, referring to the virus.

"If it spreads, we will all have problems with our health facilities. We just don't have that capability. We just don't have the resources."

Most people who get the new coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness it causes experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

Follow our live blog updates on coronavirus here.

Imran terms Ghani's comments 'disappointing'

Prime Minister Imran also criticised recent comments by the president of neighbouring Afghanistan, which appeared to reference allegations that Pakistan used militants to further its own goals in years past.

Imran called Ghani's comments "disappointing," and said that since taking office, he's worked hard with the US to help cobble together a peace deal in Afghanistan.

"If anything, it should have been appreciation of the way Pakistan has gone about furthering the peace process," he said.

"Pakistan is now a partner in peace for the US, which I always thought Pakistan should have been. Pakistan should never have been used as a sort of hired gun, which is the role which Pakistan was playing," he explained.

Prime Minister Imran said he has always opposed his country's participation in the "war on terror," calling it a waste of Pakistani lives and money.

Hindu nationalism in India

The premier said he's also warned about violent strife on the other side of his eastern border, amid the rise Hindu nationalism in India.

"The worst nightmare of the world has happened an extremist, racial party that believes in racial superiority has taken over a country of more than one billion people and has nuclear weapons," he said.

"That's when I went to the United Nations" to warn of the danger posed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modis Hindu nationalist-led government, he said.

A citizenship law in India fast-tracks naturalisation for foreign-born religious minorities of all major faiths in South Asia, except Islam. There are about 280 million Muslims there.

Since the law's passing, India has been wracked by some of the worst communal violence in decades. There is some evidence of police aiding Hindu extremist attacks against Muslim neighbourhoods, setting fire to a mosque.

In a further call for action from the international community, Prime Minister Imran said it was time to end US sanctions on Iran, where one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world has unfolded.

Iran has struggled to respond in part because of crippling sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.

The outbreak in Iran has also hit close to home. Most of Pakistan's cases of the coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness it causes have been traced back to Iran, and all of the 21 Afghans who tested positive had travelled to Iran.

Prime Minister Imran said Iran is a "classic example" of a place where the humanitarian imperative to contain the outbreak outweighs political rivalries or economic dogmas.