Barbs fly in NA over fight against Covid-19

Updated 12 May 2020

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ISLAMABAD: Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi addressing the National Assembly session on Monday.
ISLAMABAD: Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi addressing the National Assembly session on Monday.

• Ministers defend Centre’s actions, blame opposition for current situation
• Bilawal suggests PM amend batting order
• Khawaja Asif says national policy on virus is nothing but confusion

ISLAMABAD: The Nat­ional Assembly debate on the Covid-19 situation on Monday exposed the existing disharmony and distrust between the Centre and Sindh province over handling of the pandemic as the opposition accused the federal government of leaving the provinces on their own in this “war” against coronavirus.

The National Assembly, which met after a gap of nearly two months with over 140 members in attendance, witnessed political attacks and counter attacks during over-three-hour-long proceedings.

The entire sitting was presided over by Deputy Speaker Qasim Suri in the absence of Speaker Asad Qaiser who has quarantined himself after testing positive for the virus.

Prime Minister Imran Khan and Opposition Leader Shahbaz Sharif were among the other prominent absentees. Parlia­mentary leader of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N) Khawaja Asif told the house that Mr Sharif was a “cancer survivor” and doctors had advised him not to attend the sitting.

The NA Secretariat staff took extraordinary steps to ensure strict adherence to health guidelines and standard operating procedures (SOPs) for ensuring safety of the members and the staff. The members had been directed to wear masks and ensure social distancing though a number of members were seen without masks and holding group discussions, compelling the chair to reprimand them.

On the opening day of the three-day debate, Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP)

chairman Bilawal Bhutto-Zardari and PML-N’s Khawaja Asif represented the opposition side after Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi’s opening speech. The opposition leaders alleged that the federal government had not been able to come up with a national strategy to deal with the Covid-19 situation, whereas FM Qureshi and two other ministers defended federal government actions and blamed the opposition parties for trying to achieve political mileage from the situation.

The opposition criticised every step of the federal government, starting from its handling of Zaireen from Iran to screening at airports, provision of medical equipment to doctors, facilities at quarantine centres, blocking the Sindh legislation for relief efforts and the decision to ease the lockdown at a time when the pandemic is reaching its peak.

However, all the three ministers highlighted the measures taken by the federal government so far to deal with the impact of the pandemic, terming them historic and unprecedented. They also defended the Centre’s decision to ease the lockdown, claiming that they were taking all the decisions with consensus from the platform of the National Coordination Committee (NCC) and the National Command and Operation Centre (NCOC).

Mr Bhutto-Zardari questioned the absence of Prime Minister Imran Khan from the house and the PML-N’s Khawaja Asif took the government to task for running the key affairs of the state including the health sector through unelected people.

In what appears to be a clear departure from the parliamentary traditions, the deputy speaker earlier gave the floor to Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to open up the debate.

When former prime minister Raja Pervez Ashraf and former deputy speaker Murtaza Javed Abbasi objected to another decision of the chair to give floor to federal Minister for Economic Affairs Hammad Azhar after the speech of PMLN’s Khawaja Asif, Mr Suri reminded them of the House Business Advisory Committee decision whereby the opposition and the government had agreed on the mechanism to run the proceedings, saying that each party would be given time to speak in accordance with its numerical strength in the house.

Mr Bhutto-Zardari, in his hard-hitting but well-prepared speech, said the federal government was “undermining and sabotaging” Sindh’s efforts to fight the pandemic. He said instead of acknowledging the province’s efforts, the governor refused to sign the legislation meant for providing relief to the people of Sindh. He said his party had always been ready to offer cooperation to the federal government if PM Khan amended the batting order of his team by getting rid of those resorting to abusive language at a time when the country deserved unity the most.

The PPP chairman said: “The federal government should have stood with us shoulder to shoulder. We are in the midst of a war, and the prime minister expects us to fight the war on our own.”

Accusing the Centre of not providing the protective gears and masks and other required equipment to medical fraternity in time, Mr Bhutto-Zardari said the Centre wanted the frontline soldiers to fight the war “without weapons”. He said Sindh had to provide equipment to Multan’s Nishtar Hospital from its resources.

The PPP chairman said the PTI government at the Centre was responsible for the spread of the virus across the country, as maintaining the borders and screening at airports were its responsibility. The federal government did not ensure proper management of Zaireen who entered Pakistan from Iran. He said it was neither the fault of Zaireen or the Tableeghi Jamaat members, nor of any province but of the federal government.

He also blasted the government for, what he called, distributing funds to the poor set aside for the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) under its Ehsaas programme.

Crisis exposed true faces of leaders

The PPP chairman said the coronavirus crisis had exposed “the true faces” of the world leaders, including US President Donald Trump, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and “unfortunately it has also revealed our own prime minister’s ineptitude”.

PML-N’s Khawaja Asif accused the prime minister of giving contradictory statements and confusing the nation. Mr Asif alleged that the government was treating the pandemic as a “partisan issue”.

“We are tired of it. He (PM) is not providing leadership. He’s spreading confusion. We can’t defeat this virus by fig leaves,” he said. “When we had fewer deaths, the entire country was completely shut down. Now that we are seeing a dangerous spike in cases, they are easing lockdown restrictions,” he said, adding that the only word to explain the national policy on Covid-19 was “confusion”.

Federal Minister for Economic Affairs Hammad Azhar said hunger was as much a threat to Pakistan as the coronavirus itself.

“Ours is not a western developed country where people can sit home and eat. We have to balance hunger and poverty with the virus,” he said in response to Mr Asif’s speech.

While opening the debate earlier, FM Qureshi said Pakistan’s infection and death rate was different as compared to Europe and the US. “Our curve is slower and flatter as compared to theirs which is always exponential growth,” he said, adding that no one could predict when the outbreak would peak.

“Therefore, we cannot afford to have a prolonged lockdown. We require a unified strategy to tackle this crisis,” he said. He also claimed that Pakistan was “ahead of other South Asian countries” in terms of handling the coronavirus crisis.

Mr Qureshi said despite the fact that health was a devolved a subject, the Centre was assisting the provinces in the fight against Covid-19, claiming that Sindh had been provided medical equipment more than its due share according to its population.

Saying that he had spent a long and a prime time in the PPP, Mr Qureshi alleged that the PPP was no more a party of federation and it had converted itself into a regional party. He said no one could use Sindh card in this situation and only a “national card” would be valid to deal with it.

He said Pakistan could not afford to have a prolonged lockdown, but if the situation worsened the decision to ease restrictions could be reviewed.

The opposition members left the assembly hall when Mr Suri gave floor to Communications Minister Murad Saeed soon after Mr Bhutto-Zardari’s speech.

Mr Saeed, in his usual style, targeted the opposition leadership accusing them of not paying any attention towards improving health facilities during their rules.

Responding to the opposition’s criticism over lockdown issue, the minister said the opposition was making hue and cry whereas New York and other states were following Pakistan’s policy of “smart lockdown”.

Published in Dawn, May 12th, 2020