ISLAMABAD: Prime Minister Imran Khan on Wednesday said that developing countries like Pakistan face the dilemma of whether to protect their people from COVID-19 or hunger as he defended his decision to ease the nationwide lockdown to save millions of people who would have starved to death due to the coronavirus-related restrictions.
Khan made the comments while addressing the the World Economic Forum through a video link, highlighting the economic vulnerabilities of the developing countries in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.
"We had to face a twin challenge. One was to stem the growth of the virus, but the bigger challenge is how to mitigate the effects of lockdown on our population and rising poverty," he said.
Pakistan on May 9 began easing the month-long nationwide lockdown in a phased manner by allowing various businesses to open up, citing the economic crisis due to the shutdown. Khan defended his policy of easing the lockdown as millions would have starved if the government had not lifted the lockdown meant to curb the spread of the coronavirus.
"In Pakistan, we have 25 million workers who are either daily wagers or are self-employed, and these are 25 million families. I say it has affected 120-150 million in total," he said. He said that the Pakistan government made a critical decision to provide cash to poor families and so far 15 million families had received money.
"These people are facing stark poverty, and unless these people work, they will starve," he said, adding that his government started a cash disbursement programme but that is only a "short term solution". Khan supported the effort by the G-20 nations to come up with debt relief, saying it would help divert resources to fight the pandemic.
"G-20 countries are coming up with a debt relief [initiative] but we need more details. The reason why there should be [such an initiative] is because we need that fiscal space to divert resources to healthcare and the environment," he said.
He said already a lot of the developing countries lack the fiscal space to put money into healthcare and it was now becoming even more difficult due to their economic fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak. "I have spoken to the leaders of Nigeria, Ethiopia and Egypt and they told me that they were facing similar issues such as drop in exports and revenue," he said.
Khan said that the pandemic did not hit the developing countries like Pakistan, India and Bangladesh with the speed as it did in the Europe and the US. "Firstly, the speed with which the virus spread in the Europe and the US, it didn't spread in the same way here," he said, adding that countries like Pakistan faced tough economic challenges.
He said that the virus has hit Pakistan at the worst time when it was in a position to make economic recovery after tough reforms.
Khan said that the coming year would be a challenge for Pakistan and also for the rest of the world. "After the pandemic, every country looked within and became insular. But ultimately we are all connected and the response has to be global," he said.