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The Express Tribune Editorial 20 May 2020

SC judgment

To the Supreme Court of Pakistan, the Covid-19 “apparently is not a pandemic in Pakistan” and “the [federal and provincial] governments should not put all its [sic] resources for this one disease, nor the country should be made all together dysfunctional, because of this disease, for its consequences will be highly detrimental to the people of Pakistan”.
A five-member bench of the top court headed by Chief Justice Gulzar Ahmed, while issuing a six-page order on Monday in a suo motu case, questioned several steps taken by the Centre and provinces to deal with coronavirus crisis, including the closure of mega shopping malls even though small shops and markets are allowed to operate; ban on all shops and businesses to operate on Saturdays and Sundays, and sealing of certain shops and plazas as a penalty for not adhering to SOPs.
While the mentioned restrictions don’t hold in the wake of the Supreme Court judgment, other such measures not attended to in the judgment — like a ban on public transport, restricted flight and train operations, social distancing in mosques during prayer congregations, limited hours for the businesses to operate — are unlikely to find justification to continue. And the authorities are bound to come under pressure to do away with the remaining restrictions as well. The judgment, thus, drives the proverbial last nail in the coffin of the fragile lockdown arrangements.
Also, the top court finds “no reason why so much money is being spent on this Coronavirus” while “there are other serious ailments prevailing in the country, from which people are dying daily”. The message that this observation sends to an already carefree public may not have gone down well with the medical community that has all along been calling for a strict lockdown across the country, given that the virus has yet to peak in the country and the infection curve is yet to flatten.
Irrespective of its merits, the Supreme Court order has also renewed the debate on the justification of invoking Article 184(3) of the Constitution. However, time will tell whether what is being described by many as “judicial interference in the matters of the executive” was justified or not. And the time is not too far.


Wheat supply

The endless tussle between the government and mill owners over wheat flour supply continues, with mills going on strike in three provinces. The mills have stopped producing or supplying wheat in Punjab and other provinces. Though there is not a critical shortage of flour for consumers right now, a prolonged strike could change the equation. Even Food Security officials — while trying to downplay the issue by saying there is not an imminent danger because Ramazan and the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic have lowered demand — admitted markets only have a supply of three to four days.
Another problem is that while the Covid-19 lockdowns worked to lower demand due to changes in eating habits, they have also affected production. Given that the provincial food departments have not yet met their purchasing targets, moving forward, this could create further supply issues in the coming weeks and months. The mill owners perceived sleight in the number of raids being carried out by government bodies, including district governments and provincial food departments. They also claim that the ban on open market purchasing and interprovincial supply of wheat is not acceptable.
But the government has also suggested that price is the real issue. Punjab authorities are trying to get mills to sell 20kg bags of flour for Rs805. Mill owners, however, say that with the price per maund of wheat in the markets at around Rs1,600, or Rs800 per 20 kg, they cannot sell flour at that price i.e. Rs805. The Food Department in Punjab, the most populous province, is already behind on its wheat purchasing target. The goal was 4.5 million metric tonnes by the start of June, but only 3.5 million have been procured so far.
Given the fact that there are only around two weeks left, and even fewer working days due to the upcoming Eid holidays, food officials need to act soon. Otherwise, those three to four days of flour are going to be baked off very quickly.


Health and education

As the presentation of annual budgets is drawing closer, concerned quarters have begun to put forward their recommendations and inputs. Like several think tanks, the Sindh Social Scientists Forum has urged the federal and provincial governments to allocate at least 10% of the federal budget and 20% of the provincial budget for health, education and the social sector. The health sector both at the federal and provincial levels has come under severe pressure due to the coronavirus pandemic, so there is an urgent need to increase spending in this sector. The forum has asked the government to improve facilities at existing hospitals, open new hospitals, ensure the provision of PPE to all engaged in the fight against the pandemic. It has asked for bringing about improvements in the education sector like increasing the number of educational institutions, provision of water and sanitation facilities in all educational institutions and proper buildings for schools. These demands must get the support of both the common people and of the government.
However, we should also take into account the harsh realities. In Pakistan, over the past one decade, health has been getting less than 3% of budgetary allocations and education a little over 2%. When it comes to cutting spending, the axe usually falls on health, education, development and social sectors. In last year’s budget, spending was severely reduced in these sectors obviously due to depletion of the state coffers. When the PTI-led government took over in August 2018, it inherited an economy deep in trouble. The previous regimes had left the coffers nearly-empty and the tottering economy had to be brought back on its feet though loans from international lending agencies. It was this situation that led to the cuts in spending on health, education and the social sector. This year too we should not expect much change because of the global economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
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