ISLAMABAD: Senators from both sides the aisle on Tuesday squabbled over the federal government’s response to the coronavirus outbreak and the decision to lift the lockdown amid rising number of infections as the upper house of parliament met after a two-month pandemic-induced hiatus.
The Senate session was held a day after lawmakers from both sides fired broadsides at each other in the National Assembly as well.
The opposition senators hit out at the government for its “unclear policies” and also decried the absence of Prime Minister Imran Khan from the house, similar to how he had skipped the session of the lower house of parliament.
Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi defended the government’s policies maintaining that a lockdown was a temporary solution and also highlighted the economic impact of the pandemic.
At the outset of the proceedings, the leader of the opposition in the house, PML-N’s Raja Zafarul Haq, said the government had adopted a negative approach as it had not engaged with the opposition to find possible solutions for fighting the pandemic.
“The government did not even bother to sit with the opposition. This is a negative mindset and the whole nation will have to face the consequences,” he added.
He maintained that the prime minister had tried to divide the nation by stating that the lockdown was imposed by the elite.
“Some cabinet members were told to adopt the kind of behaviour that is usually seen before the elections,” he said condemning the language of the ruling party members against the opposition.
“The philosophy that is being promoted during this pandemic is aimed at creating hatred against the opposition.”
Haq said the federal government had left the provinces on their own, particularly painting the Sindh government in a negative light.
“They are being portrayed as the enemy of the people,” the PML-N senator added.
The opposition leader claimed the government had lifted the lockdown despite doctors and experts warning of a spike in coronavirus cases and now different parameters were in place in provinces and units.
Haq also condemned the US statements, which imply that the novel coronavirus was developed in a laboratory in Wuhan. He thanked China for its assistance to Pakistan in the fight against the war.
PPP’s Senator Sherry Rehman insisted that that the government had mishandled the situation and the prime minister “confusing” statements had created further complications.
“I don’t want to raise the issue of missing persons right now but there is a man missing here. That missing person is none other than the prime minister. He is missing, his policy is missing and his words of unity and healing are missing," she said
"Where is the prime minister? Who is running the country?" she added. “He [prime minister] is not afraid of the coronavirus, I am sure. Then why is he was afraid of coming to parliament.”
Rehman agreed with Foreign Minister Qureshi’s remarks in the National Assembly’s session a day earlier that national unity was needed to tackle the pandemic.
However, she noted that a hate campaign is launched every single day against Sindh by junior members of the PTI.
“The SOPs [standard operating procedures] are not being followed because people are getting a ‘mixed and confused’ message from the highest office of the country,” she claimed Rehman. “One day the nation is told that the lockdown is necessary while the next day the opposite massage is conveyed.”
Declaring the pandemic as a situation “worse than war”, Rehman said the government was not ready to sit with the opposition and come up with a policy.
She also questioned as to why the Council of Common Interests had not yet met.
“You passed the 18th Amendment so you are on your own. This is what we get to hear,” she said, “The 18th Amendment should have nothing to do with it. The provinces are self-sufficient [because of the 18th Amendment] but they are not the state.”
She said a discussion could take place on the 18th Amendment but now not the right time to take up any matter other than the coronavirus pandemic.
The PPP senator maintained distractions were being created to avoid criticism of the government’s performance amid the outbreak.
Rehman also lashed out at the government for giving the examples of the failure of the US, Italy and UK in curbing the disease.
“They made mistakes but we don’t have to make them. We can learn,” she said. “Why should we experiment while putting the lives of our people at risk?”
Speaking on the debate on life versus livelihood, she said that there was no choice. “Life comes first. There shouldn’t be any confusion on that.”
Questioning government’s policy to deal with pandemic, she said there was no clarity
“Someday it’s a soft lockdown and then a smart one. At other times, there’s a crazy lockdown.”
Asking to change priorities and questioning the allocations for different sectors in the stimulus package, she said that the construction industry and other big businesses came later and not only could they run their own wheels but support the rest of the population.
Responding to the criticism from the opposition benches, Foreign Minister Qureshi said the prime minister was in Islamabad working day and night to fight the war against Covid-19.
Negating PPP senator’s claim that there was not a unified policy, Qureshi said there was no confusion and the policy was clear. “A national strategy has been formulated and they [opposition] have a hand in preparing it. We value their input.”
Clarifying the government’s stance on lifting the restrictions, Qureshi said that the lockdown was a temporary solution to flatten the coronavirus curve.
“The real solution is a vaccine but that will take time. Until the real solution comes, we have to see how we can control the spread of the virus.”
On the delay in calling the sessions of the two houses of parliament, the minister said the opposition could not develop consensus on the matter.
“Even the deputy chairperson of the Senate, a prominent leader of the PPP, was against the idea,” he said. “First develop consensus within your own ranks.”
On PM Imran’s statement that the lockdown was enforced by elites, the minister said: “Sometimes you are quoted out of context in politics. The prime minister did not say that the elites had enforced lockdown. What he meant to say was that the upper class can afford to stay in a lockdown but the poor cannot.”
On the 18th Amendment, Qureshi said “burying the 18th Amendment was not the government’s policy” as the government accepted most of its aspects and only wanted to address the weaknesses that had emerged in the last decade. “We don’t have a two-thirds majority to bring any change, why are you afraid?” he said.
The minister warned that a recession would follow the pandemic. “The global economy is going to contract by 3%. It amounts to trillions of dollars and this will have a major impact on Pakistan.”
Qureshi added that the country’s exports had decreased by 40%. He also noted that Pakistanis working in Gulf countries were being sacked amid remittances could reduce by 20- 23%."
The minister clarified that the government had not replaced the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP) with the Ehsaas Programme.
The scope of BISP was limited and the Ehsaas programme has expanded it.”
Speaking in the house, PML-N’s Senator Musadiq Malik said graveyards had no economy and the government’s job was to give an effective plan against hunger and death instead of just differentiating between the two.
“At the moment, the government’s policy is that those who will survive will run the wheels of economy,” he maintained.
The senator claimed that the government was moving towards "herd immunity" – a notion that if enough of the population is infected and becomes immune, the virus will not be able to spread further.
He suggested enforcing an effective lockdown for three to four weeks to stop the spread of the disease. He also suggested that the government should divide areas in different zones – green, yellow and red – lifting all restrictions in the green zone, keep an eye on the yellow and giving complete focus on the red zones. Moreover, he urged for coming up with a law against layoffs.
Senator Javed Abbasi, also of the PML-N, claimed that the government had not taken enough steps to curb the virus from spreading when the first case had emerged in the country.
He also hit out at the government for easing the lockdown at a stage when the virus was spreading.
JI Senator Mushtaq Ahmad Khan said no country in the world had displayed such lack of seriousness in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic as was seen in Pakistan.
The senators burst into laughter when he quipped that “you cannot build the State of Madina by broadcasting the Ertugrul show” – a Turkish serial, currently being aired on PTV at the behest of the prime minister.
Khan urged the government to bring back Pakistani neuroscientist Aafia Siddiqui saying that coronavirus had spread in the US prison where she had been incarcerated.