Notwithstanding the fact that the pandemic of coronavirus is universally recognised as the biggest humanitarian challenge facing the global community and requires a global response premised on recognition of the need to extend adequate financial support to the poor and developing countries to cope with the challenge, the response by the affluent nations and the world lending institutions has been very disappointing to say the least.

Although a one-year reprieve on debt payments to the developing countries including Pakistan announced by G-20, IMF, World Bank and ADB is welcome, as it would give some fiscal space to these nations and enhance their capability to lessen the economic impact and expand their health systems to tackle the burgeoning onslaught of the coronavirus to some extent. But considering the enormity of the challenge and the uncertainty regarding how long the pandemic was going to persist, the effort is not going to achieve the desired results. Economists and experts believe that it will further increase the debt burden of developing nations. The deferred debt payments will have to be made by these countries after the expiry in the moratorium period and in view of the dismal growth projections made by the World Bank, these countries may not be able to even do that, what to speak of increasing expenditure on measures to prevent the spread of virus and raising adequate health facilities to treat people.

Dealing with the pandemic of coronavirus has humanitarian as well as economic dimensions. Therefore, it is incumbent upon the world community, particularly affluent nations who are spending trillions of dollars in their own countries on stimulus and relief packages to write-off loans due from developing countries instead of only giving one year’s reprieve on debt payments. They should realise that until and unless the developing and poor nations are not helped adequately to deal with the brewing crisis, coinciding with the efforts in their own countries to grapple with this invisible enemy, the pandemic cannot be tackled effectively and the cycle of sufferings will continue. By helping the developing and poor countries they will in fact be securing the future of all of humanity including their own people.

Prime Minister Imran Khan was right on the money in his address to the world community when he visualised the enormity of the challenge and appealed to rich nations and lending institutions to write-off loans. The underlying message was that developing countries needed support from the developed world in this critical time. The world community though has affirmed that suggestion, but its response has not been in accordance with the suggestion. The Pakistan government has already announced a stimulus and relief package of Rs1200 billion keeping in view the resource constraints. Due to the deferment of debts for one year it would have additional resources amounting to Rs2418 billion. But if the pandemic continues for a longer period, I am afraid the country will not be able to sustain its efforts to save its economy as well as to build and expand its health system. The Prime Minister is right to reiterate that Pakistan does not have the resources to deal with any such eventuality. Same is also true in regards to other developing countries, more so the African nations.

In the given circumstances it is encouraging to note that the UN General Assembly through a resolution has demanded global action to quickly scale up the development of and access to medicines, vaccines and equipment to battle the pandemic. The resolution asks the UN Secretary General to work with World Health Organisation and make recommendations to ensure that all people have equitable and timely access to testing, medical supplies, drugs and future vaccines, especially in developing countries.

The development of these facilities in the developing countries would surely require enormous resources which unfortunately they cannot muster on their own and will have to be helped by the rich nations. According to an estimate worked up by Oxfam, developing countries would require at least $2.5 trillion to check the onslaught of coronavirus and obstruct the global economic collapse. The possibility of this scenario cannot be ruled out because of the connectivity and interdependence permeating the global economic order. It is a common humanitarian and economic cause and has to be dealt collectively with rich nations showing more magnanimity and flexibility in regards to their obligations towards their fellow human beings.

In my view Prime Minister Imran Khan must launch a diplomatic initiative along with other developing countries to lobby the world community for writing-off the loans taken by the developing countries. Perhaps the UN should be the preferred platform with UN Secretary General spearheading the effort.

Before concluding I would like to make some observations on the domestic scenario as well. While the government is doing what is possible within available means and there is no dearth of commitment and determination to grapple with the challenge keeping in view our own social, cultural and religious compulsions and sensitivities, the best remedy available at the moment against the spread of coronavirus is social distancing and lockdown keeping in the intensity of the crisis. That is where the role of the public comes in. People have to exhibit social and national responsibility in this time of adversity and learn to live according to the changed circumstances. The government and media are continuously impressing upon the need for social distancing and following the preventing measures to check the spread of the virus. But it is regrettable to note that public response is very poor. That needs to change if the efforts of the government in this regard are to succeed. Groups within the society such as the clergy also must understand the gravity of the situation and cooperate with the government in enforcing measures in regards to social distancing and making the lockdowns a success, wherever necessary.