ISLAMABAD: Imran Khan and Bill Gates arrive at the Prime Minister House on Thursday.—White Star
ISLAMABAD: Imran Khan and Bill Gates arrive at the Prime Minister House on Thursday.—White Star

ISLAMABAD: Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Bill Gates had a chock-a-block schedule on Thursday during his first trip to the country that included meetings with the prime minister, the president and other national and provincial leaders, a luncheon and a ceremony to confer on him one of the country’s highest civil awards.

Mr Gates also visited the National Command and Operations Centre (NCOC) and chaired a meeting of the National Emergency Operation Centre (NEOC) on polio. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF) is part of a global initiative between governments and international organisations fighting the crippling disease.

Welcoming Mr Gates, Prime Minister Imran Khan thanked the BMGF for its continued support and partnership with the government in polio eradication.

“Polio eradication is a top priority for our government,” said Mr Khan. “We are working at all levels to ensure every child is protected with the polio vaccine and are grateful for the continued partnership and support from the BMGF and our other polio partners. We have a clear plan to eliminate this virus, and I am committed to seeing it implemented in full so that Pakistan can help secure a polio-free world.”

Microsoft co-founder meets top officials, receives Hilal-i-Pakistan on maiden visit

With Pakistan and Afghanistan being the only two countries fighting wild polio circulation, PM Khan also spoke about the situation in the neighbouring country.

“Afghanistan being the primary source of polio incidence in our two bordering provinces requires urgent international support to avert a humanitarian crisis, including a health emergency. Pakistan is providing full support for the sake of 40 million Afghans in the provision of basic amenities,” he stressed.

The premier directed deputy commissioners of the districts adjoining Afghanistan, particularly those of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, to remain vigilant and proactive against spread of poliovirus.

While calling Pakistan’s commitment to ending polio “inspiring”, Mr Gates said the country was near the end-game against the disease.

“Pakistan’s commitment to ending polio is inspiring,” he said. “Government leaders, health workers, and parents are working tirelessly to ensure this disease never paralyses a child again. This is the final, and hardest, phase of the eradication effort, but by keeping up the momentum and staying vigilant, Pakistan has an opportunity to make history by ending polio for good.”

Mr Gates thanked PM Khan for inviting him and extending warm hospitality on his first-ever visit to Pakistan. He acknowledged that despite Covid-19 restrictions, Pakistan performed amazingly and continued to administer the polio vaccine.

The National Task Force on Polio Eradication paid tribute to the 36 frontline workers and 14 law enforcement personnel who had lost their lives during vaccination campaigns across the country.

The meeting was attended by Special Assistant to the Prime Minister on Health Dr Faisal Sultan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Governor Shah Farman, the chief ministers of Punjab, KP and Gilgit-Baltistan, Azad Jammu and Kashmir Prime Minister Sardar Abdul Qayyum Khan Niazi, the health ministers of Sindh and Balochistan, representatives of international organisations and other senior officers. Deputy commissioners from across Pakistan joined via video link.

Earlier, Prime Minister Khan held a one-on-one meeting with Mr Gates and also hosted a lunch in his honour. The lunch was also attended by federal ministers Shaukat Tarin, Asad Umer, Fawad Chaudhry, Khusro Bakhtiar, Dr Sultan and others.

Later, at the Presidency, President Dr Arif Alvi conferred the Hilal-i-Pakistan — one of the country’s highest civil awards — on Mr Gates in recognition of his philanthropic services for humanity, eradication of polio and betterment of the people of Pakistan.

“Pakistan is trying to improve the nutritional needs of mother and child and in this regard Ehsaas has a very good programme. Pakistan is looking forward to an outstanding cooperation with Microsoft in the IT sector. The country has a huge youth bulge that could enormously help to meet the requirements of the Fourth Industrial Revolution,” the president said.

The Microsoft co-founder also met with the PM’s Special Assistant on Poverty Alleviation Dr Sania Nishtar to discuss the progress in poverty alleviation through the Ehsaas programme, and later visited the NCOC where he received a briefing.

Then at the NEOC, he was briefed on the successes and challenges of polio eradication in the country and also visited the operations room. Dr Faisal Sultan, Health Secretary Amir Ashraf Khawaja, NEOC Coordinator Dr Shahzad Baig and Deputy Coordinator Dr Akram Shah accompanied him during the visit.

Dr Sultan highlighted the contributions of the federal and provincial governments, the polio staff, and frontline healthcare workers towards reaching the eligible population during routine vaccination campaigns in the country.

“We are focused on building the capacity of district government-led teams, especially in high-risk areas of south KP, to provide leadership in identifying challenges, design, and implement corrective actions to reach the goal of a polio-free Pakistan,” he stated.

Published in Dawn, February 18th, 2022

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