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Dawn Editorial 25 March 2020

Incentive package

IT was never going to be a simple balancing act to perform, but the government seems to have done it right.
More details about the trillion-rupee-plus package announced by the prime minister on Tuesday are needed before its true impact can be assessed.
But in walking the tightrope between providing direct assistance to the people and helping industry to weather the tough times that lie ahead, it seems to lean in favour of direct assistance without forgetting industry.
It was stated that for the construction sector, a separate package would come later.
Presumably, the lockdowns announced by the provincial governments have halted construction activity, so coming up with any incentive package for the sector at this time would have no beneficial impact.
For industry, the package is structured to accelerate the release of sales tax refunds and calls for deferring debt service payments.
This is smartly structured because it minimises the cash outlay on the part of the government, but will help improve the liquidity position of the companies that benefit from it, thereby enabling them to maintain their payrolls.
The challenge now is targeting.
Deferred debt-service payments, assuming the government is successful in arranging this for the private sector, means only those who access bank credit will benefit.
Likewise with sales tax refunds.
There is an allocation of Rs100bn for small and medium-size enterprises and agriculture, but the mechanism through which this will be allocated is yet to be announced.
Aside from this, an amount of Rs400bn seems to be allocated for direct support to the working poor; half of the sum is supposed to preserve employment.
Once again, the allocation is good, but the mechanism will be key to success.
If the government intends to put this money into the pockets of rich industrialists under the assumption they will pass it on to the workers as remuneration, then room for abuse and capture is substantial.
It would be worth its while to find ways to directly transfer these funds to the working poor.
As time goes by, it is possible these funds will seem insufficient.
Once disbursement gets under way, the government is also likely to be swamped with complaints and loud calls for more, especially from industry.
Given the unprecedented nature of the challenge we are now moving towards, it would be entirely appropriate for the government to focus its energies directly on the people rather than seeking to route its assistance through industry.
This is a good time to rapidly increase its capacity for targeted assistance, and given the technologies available today, especially with the National Socioeconomic Registry of the Benazir Income Support Programme, as well as myriad other targeted support schemes, this can be achieved.
There is time enough to ramp up the targeting and it should be used for this purpose.


No time for war

ASKING for an end to hostilities between nations, UN Secretary General António Guterres has called on warring countries to jointly fight the battle against Covid-19 instead. “The fury of the virus illustrates the folly of war,” he said. “That is why today, I am calling for an immediate global ceasefire in all corners of the world. It is time to put armed conflict on lockdown and focus together on the true fight of our lives.” From the time the first Covid-19 death was confirmed in January 2020 in Wuhan, there have been nearly 400,000 novel coronavirus cases worldwide, and over 16,000 deaths. From developed states like the US, UK and Italy to developing countries like Pakistan, the disease is crippling healthcare infrastructure and economies across the world. As a result, governments everywhere are forced to make difficult choices to protect citizens. In countries such as Syria and Yemen which are torn by war, the destruction of infrastructure means the chances of fatalities are even higher than average.
If there were ever a point in modern history that called for an immediate stop to conflict, sanctions and political hostilities, it is now. The virus does not care about nationality or ethnicity. As Mr Guterres said, this is the fight of our lifetimes. The situation should compel world leaders like US President Donald Trump to demonstrate leadership instead of escalating tensions. Mr Trump has multiple times dubbed Covid-19 the ‘Chinese virus’ and US officials have indulged in a racially tinged blame game over the origins of the virus — words that are only dividing communities at a time when they need to be united. China, too, has hit back with equally myopic actions, with Beijing promoting a conspiracy theory that the US brought the coronavirus to Wuhan. Moreover, as countries suffer the consequences of China’s initial lack of transparency regarding the disease, the latter country is expelling US journalists. Meanwhile, the US sanctions on Iran, where Covid-19 has had a devastating impact, need to be eased immediately; such action would help the world’s (including America’s) fight against the virus. In this regard, Ayatollah Khamenei’s allegation that the virus “is specifically built for Iran using the genetic data of Iranians” is counterproductive. Leaders must remember that in a globalised world, the presence of the virus in any country will result in transmission and that if it is not curbed everywhere, it is a risk to all nations.


Police response

THE lockdown in Sindh that began on Monday can only be successful if the law-enforcement agencies are equal to the task. The first day saw the police briefly detain over 450 individuals considered to be violating the provincial government’s directives. However, old habits can be difficult to discard and entrenched mindsets resistant to change. A picture in this paper yesterday showed a group of young men in a Karachi locality being forced to sit on their haunches as penance for having defied the lockdown orders. It is commendable that the district DIG suspended the SHO responsible for meting out the humiliating punishment. Otherwise, this practice, and more — such as extorting people in exchange for turning a blind eye to their violating the lockdown — may well have started being replicated elsewhere in Sindh.
There is no denying the police are confronted with enormous challenges in trying to deal with this unprecedented emergency. However, the endemic abuses of power that have become part and parcel of their modus operandi may already be making themselves felt. Sadly, all the years of neglecting to transform the police into a credible, citizen-friendly institution that inspires public trust could add to the difficulties inherent in implementing the clampdown. The situation is particularly conducive to the police’s tendency to profile citizens based on their perceived socioeconomic status and use brute force against certain sections of society. Also, when law-enforcement personnel are on the front line, and in a highly visible capacity, these malpractices become even more glaringly apparent. Of course, all of them are not culpable and are doing their job to the best of their training and capability. As a whole though, the police force needs clearer guidelines on how to deal with those who defy the lockdown orders. Detaining such individuals in a confined space is not a viable option given the objective is to prevent the contagion from spreading further. One hopes a clear course of action will become visible in the coming days.


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