LAHORE: Despite a growing number of coronavirus cases in the province and the urgent need to ensure adequate response measures, it seems like the Punjab government has its priorities lie elsewhere in the middle of a pandemic.
Instead of making substantial strides against the looming emergency, the government refrained from bringing the Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) worth billions of rupees donated by China to Pakistan in a bid to keep the lion’s share for the province.
Per sources, the Punjab health minister Dr Yasmin Rashid requested to procure protective medical items from China on an emergency basis. But instead of selling the equipment to Pakistan, the Chinese government decided to generously donate the required items costing up to Rs100 million.
Around 45 days ago, 700 boxes carrying the PPE were donated to the Pakistan Embassy in Beijing. After completing the necessary paperwork, the embassy dispatched the boxes to the Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) cargo but the shipment never reached Pakistan.
Sources say that the Punjab health department and the PIA failed to decide a shipping rate because of which the items could not be dispatched to Pakistan. The PIA had demanded Rs37 million worth of freight charges from the Punjab health department for carrying the PPE to Pakistan, but the latter did not agree to pay the amount.
Donated items include protective suits, surgical masks, N-95 respirators, medical gloves, disposable medical protective clothing, among others, for frontline workers including doctors, nurses, and paramedical staff.
The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) has also been acquiring medical and protective equipment at the same rate and a recommendation for obtaining these items through the NDMA was also put forward. The higher-ups at the provincial health department, however, did not agree to the proposal, which would have otherwise ensured the timely arrival of the donated items to Pakistan. What’s more, the move would have exempted the Punjab government from paying the freight charges.
Sources familiar with the internal matters of the provincial government revealed that the authorities were apprehensive of sharing the PPE with other provinces as per their need which would ultimately deprive Punjab of the entire stock if the NDMA was allowed to intervene. Thus, the NDMA was not granted permission and the items were deliberately left in Beijing.
The issue was also brought up during the Punjab Cabinet meeting on coronavirus convened on April 16, where directives were issued to bring the items from China to Pakistan on an emergency basis. However, the rate dispute between the Punjab health department and the PIA further delayed the matter.
When approached, the Punjab health department spokesperson told The Express Tribune that the issue between the PIA cargo services and the health department has been resolved and the department has agreed to pay Rs29 million worth of freight charges to bring the PPE to Pakistan. A cheque for an advanced payment has also been issued and the shipment will shortly be dispatched from China, the official said.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 7th, 2020.