PM Imran defends govt's Covid-19 response, says there has been no 'confusion' or contradiction

Updated June 25, 2020

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Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks in the National Assembly on Thursday. — Photo Courtesy PTI Twitter
Prime Minister Imran Khan speaks in the National Assembly on Thursday. — Photo Courtesy PTI Twitter

Prime Minister Imran Khan on Thursday defended his government's response to the coronavirus crisis, saying there has been no confusion or contradiction in official policies since the start of the pandemic.

Speaking in the parliament during the budget session, the premier said he had stressed from day one the need to balance measures to fight the virus and preventing people from going hungry.

"They say again and again that there was confusion ... if there was one country whose government did not have confusion, it was ours," he said to applause from other treasury members.

He said the government had imposed a lockdown to curb the spread of Covid-19 when the country had only 26 cases and no deaths. At that point, he added, the provinces had "reacted themselves" because lockdown had become a worldwide phenomenon and the country did not have "centralised planning".

But he said he and his team feared from day one that the lockdown model used by Western countries and China could not be copied in Pakistan because the situation in the subcontinent was "very different".

The prime minister said people give the example of countries like New Zealand when talking about social distancing "but New Zealand has social distancing already" with a low population density. On the other hand, Pakistan has a high population density and eight-nine people often live in one-room houses, he said.

"I said from day one we had a dual problem; we had to save the people from corona and hunger, and those dying from poverty," he added, acknowledging that his government had to face "a lot of criticism" at the start and there was pressure, including from cabinet members, to implement a more strict lockdown "as done by India".

But he said the data now coming in had shown that the government took the right steps to respond to the health crisis.

Addressing the opposition benches, he challenged their lawmakers to "point out one statement that had inconsistency" since the lockdown was first announced on March 13.

"I constantly talked about two things: if you have the population of Singapore, if you have $50,000 per capita income [and] if you have natural social distancing, then curfew is the way to go.

"But I also talked about how the restrictions would impact the poor people based on our conditions," he added.

Recalling that the government did not have any data on available ventilators and intensive care staff initially, Imran lauded the National Command and Operation Centre for collecting all the information on a daily basis and looking at trends with expert help due to which "our decision making was free of inconsistencies".

'Next phase is difficult'

Reiterating the "destruction" a sweeping lockdown could cause to a country, Prime Minister Imran said: "India's reports are in front of the world ... figures show that 34 per cent people have been steeped into poverty. Their hospitals are facing difficulties; they are full."

He said the government had opened the construction sector first and now the whole world was saying that "there are more negative effects of lockdown as compared to its impact on controlling the virus."

Citing the example of New York, Imran said even "the strongest economy is also realising you cannot close down an economy."

He added that his government was the first to talk about a 'smart' lockdown. "This is the hallmark of our NCOC; look at our population and how we have navigated this hurdle."

At the same time, the premier told the nation that they have a "very difficult situation" in front of them.

"The next phase is difficult because we are trying to make people understand why following standard operating procedures is so important," he said, adding that the virus spreads when there are clusters.

He said the country had two paths going forward: there are enough facilities to cope with the virus if people take precautions, but if people show carelessness, the disease will continue to wreak havoc.

"If we spend this month following precautions, then we can save ourselves from [the virus's] bad effects," he said, condoling with the families of the nearly 4,000 people who have died of Covid-19 in the country.

'Govt not hiding behind corona'

The prime minister also dismissed the criticism by some opposition members that the government was "hiding behind corona" to take attention away from its economic performance, saying Pakistan was not the only country whose economy was hit by the pandemic.

"Today the IMF gave figures, the world's economy will suffer a loss of $12 trillion. The whole world is saying that this is the biggest economic crisis in 100 years," he said, adding that he found the opposition's accusation "strange" because the world has entered a recession.

Responding to the criticism of the government's economic performance, Prime Minister Imran said his administration had inherited a current account deficit of $20 billion.

"When we came the biggest issue was inflation. The rupee was Rs104 against the dollar but when we took office it reached Rs122. Eventually, the rupee fell and then stabilised due to the measures we took," he said.

However, he recalled, the exchange rate caused the imports to become expensive and as a result, the prices of goods rose. "Poverty was then inevitable due to this adjustment. But we inherited this, we didn't give this huge deficit," the premier said.

The national debt had reached Rs30,000 billion by the time the PTI took over and reserves of $20 billion crashed down to $10 billion. As a result, the government was forced to reach out to friendly countries for help, he added.

"I felt shame when we went to others to ask for money. We were asking for that money because we were about to default," the prime minister said.

He also compared the funds spent on foreign trips by him and the former presidents and prime ministers from the PPP and PML-N, saying he had used much less money as compared to the former rulers and cut down expenses of the Prime Minister's Office.

Supporting US caused 'humiliation' to Pakistan: PM

Prime Minister Imran also spoke about his government's foreign policy, starting with the country's relations with the United States.

He said Pakistan had to face a lot of "humiliation" despite supporting Washington in the 'war on terror' and was then blamed for the US's failures in Afghanistan.

Recalling the two incidents that caused "embarrassment" to Pakistan while supporting the US, he said: "The Americans came to Abbottabad and killed, martyred [Al Qaeda leader] Osama bin Laden. What happened after that? The entire world cursed at us and spoke ill of us.

"So our ally comes to our own country to kill someone and doesn't inform us? And 70,000 Pakistanis have died in their war. Look at the humiliation that caused to all the Pakistanis who were abroad."

He said the US was carrying out drone strikes inside Pakistan, which the Pakistani government at the time said it opposed. But when an American senator asked former US military chief Admiral Mike Mullen at a Senate hearing why drone attacks were being carried out despite the Pakistani government's objection, Mullen replied that "we are carrying out the drone attacks with the permission of the Pakistani government", Prime Minister Imran added.

He said Pakistan did not know whether it was an ally or a foe of the US in the war on terror and such incidents caused immense embarrassment to overseas Pakistanis.

Prime Minister Imran said it was his party's "consistent" foreign policy that its government would not participate in the American war and only take part in peace talks. Today, the country is not fighting somebody else's war and the relationship with the US is based on trust, he added.

"No one is humiliating us there anymore. [US President] Donald Trump has always given respect whenever we have met. In fact, he requests our help in bringing peace to Afghanistan," he said, adding that Pakistan's role in the Afghan peace talks was being widely acknowledged today.

Prime Minister Imran also said Pakistan had tried and is still trying to improve relations between Saudi Arabia and Iran. However, he acknowledged that there are problems in ending the conflict because "other players involved don't want" to see that happening.

He said his government had also tried to mend relations with India but the BJP government's Hindu supremacist agenda became clear when India annexed occupied Kashmir last year.

Imran said Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is a "fanatic" who is a curse for not only Indian Muslims but also for Hindus.

He said the Kashmir issue has now reached a "point of no return" and India keeping eight million Kashmiris subjugated by deploying 800,000 troops will be "unsustainable".