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Express Tribune Editorials – 13th March 2020

Finally alive

We have suddenly realised that it’s serious. Coronavirus broke out in our vicinity, China, some four months back and spread out to dozens of countries far and wide before clutching three-fourth the world, infecting tens of thousands of people and killing more than five thousand, but there was a virtual calm within our borders. We knew it was coming, but we were not panicked — very strangely. Even with the number of infected people in the country rose to 21, we moved at our own casual pace. We did set up a few quarantine zones, but they terribly lack the required facilities, and are rather a hotbed of diseases themselves. We did adopt measures at airports to monitor the inbound passengers, but only to fulfil a formality. A much-needed coordination between the Centre and the provinces, and among the provinces, was direly missing and there was no national guideline either. Until yesterday, surprisingly, there was no word from our prime minister on an issue that has brought the whole world to its knees.

At long last though, an official acknowledgment of the coronavirus dangers in the country and the need to devise a national strategy to deal with the global pandemic has come. A meeting of the National Security Council — chaired by the Prime Minister yesterday and attended by the Services Chiefs, all four Chief Ministers and key federal ministers — has taken important decisions to cope with the emerging situation, as follows: all government and private educational institutions, including schools, colleges, universities and seminaries, have been closed till 5th April; there is now a ban on public gatherings, including weddings; Pakistan Day Parade on 23rd March also stands cancelled; Pakistan Super League has been cut short; the country’s borders with Iran and Afghanistan have been completely sealed at least for 15 days, and concrete preventive measures have been ordered to be adopted at the borders; international flights shall only operate from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad airports; and finally a quarantine centre has been established at the Karachi airport.

The National Security Committee has also decided that all institutions, including the armed forces, will work in coordination towards the containment of the viral infection. The consultative body that comprises top civil and military leadership has also directed the National Disaster Management Authority to provide a list of whatever is required to fight the virus. A day before the NSC huddle, on Thursday, a meeting of the corps commanders had discussed the ‘emerging situation’ and what preventive measures could be taken to protect soldiers. Army Chief Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa also directed the corps commanders to be prepared to support national efforts to counter the virus if the domestic situation worsened.

Unfortunately, amid all the talk, there still appears to be a massive lack of capacity at the medical facilities if the disease does reach pandemic proportions in the country. What the government, most importantly, needs to do is to approach China and learn from its experience on how to contain the virus. That money lies at the heart of the fight against the growing challenge is a given. The government must swiftly move to allocate a special fund and ensure its fair distribution among those in the frontline of the fight. As a future measure, the government must also set aside some budget to account for the purchase of a vaccine which foreign experts are working to develop.

Now that there is an emergency across the country, the authorities must ensure that the decisions announced are implemented in letter and spirit. The scantest of the laxity would be a sin.

Wheat support price

The federal government has fixed wheat support price at Rs1,400 per 40kg for the crop 2019-20 and also announced that benefit of the declining oil prices will be passed on to consumers. It is, however, unclear whether a procurement target has been set or not. The purpose of fixing support prices for agricultural commodities is to provide incentives to farmers. The aim is also to ensure availability of foodstuffs at affordable prices and to have surplus produce that can earn foreign exchange. In November last year, the government had decided to fix the minimum support price for the 2019-20 crop at Rs1,365 per 40kg against the food ministry’s recommendation of Rs1,400. The federal government had to review its decision after the Sindh government set the procurement price at Rs1,400, to ensure uniformity in the procurement price throughout the country.

The cost of wheat production has increased in Punjab and Sindh, the main producers of the staple in the country. Farmers were considering switching to other crops where there is sustainable return. So in view of the rising cost of production the government has increased the support price. Now the government will have to ensure sufficient water and electricity supply to farmers so that their output is adequate to meet domestic requirement and some surplus is also available for export. There is the need to pass on the benefit of falling oil prices to growers.

Considering the increasing economic problems which are having their impact on all spheres of life, what is of utmost significance is to keep the masses satisfied by making wheat and wheat flour available at affordable prices. The economic managers should be on guard against the machination of hoarders and profiteers and other vested interests so that a shortage of wheat and wheat flour does not occur like the one that was witnessed a few months ago. Mistakes like allowing the export of the commodity without taking into account domestic consumption should not be repeated. Last year, this error caused havoc in the domestic market, which brought a windfall for unscrupulous elements and also gave the opposition teeth.

March 14, 2020
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