Pakistan has relaxed restrictions on certain industries to allow them to resume their activities but extended a lockdown on educational institutions and public gatherings for another two weeks to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Prime Minister Imran Khan announced the decision after chairing a meeting of top cabinet officials to review the current lockdown of the nation of 220 million people that was supposed to end at midnight Tuesday.
The national tally of infections stood at fewer than 6,000, with around 100 deaths, but, despite the relatively low number of COVID-19 cases, experts and officials have warned the figure could exponentially increase in coming days.
Khan defended his concessions for commercial sectors, saying the country has experienced 70% fewer cases of the coronavirus than the initial official estimates. He said the situation was expected to remain under control because of timely preventive measures by the government.
The prime minister, however, noted that the month-long lockdown has disrupted economic activity and millions of daily wage laborers have lost their jobs.
“Every move that we make under the current situation is fraught with risks as we are faced with the challenge of corona on one hand and hunger on the other,” Khan said.
Khan said the fragile economy did not allow the Pakistani government to allocate enough resources to feed the poorest families, or an estimated 80 million individuals, who are immediately affected by the restrictions.
Last week, Pakistan launched an emergency financial relief package worth nearly $1 billion, the country’s largest ever social protection program, to give about $70 each to more than 12 million families to help alleviate the economic fallout.
Khan is also appealing to the international community to give highly indebted developing countries urgent debt relief to allow them to address the health and economic challenges posed by the deadly coronavirus.
Khan’s office said he held a telephone conversation Tuesday with German Chancellor Angela Merkel to follow up on his global debt relief call. “People in the developing world face a starker choice: death by COVID-19 or by hunger,” Khan was quoted as telling the German leader. COVID-19 is the disease caused by the coronavirus.
“The prime minister underscored that ability of the developing countries to cope with the COVID-19 challenge would depend on providing urgent debt relief, at their request, and without onerous conditions,” his office said.
Pakistan, where an estimated 40% of people live in poverty, owes more than $100 billion to international lenders and a large chunk of the national budget is consumed by debt servicing.
A World Bank report last week also warned that countries in South Asia, including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, are on course to experience their worst economic performances in decades in the wake of the pandemic.