18th Amendment: Can Pakistan have a joint policy to contain COVID-19?

The top court in Pakistan directs the provinces and center to device a joint strategy to contain COVID-19. However, experts question whether there can be a uniform policy in the country in the presence of the 18th amendment which empowered provinces to regulate both health and education.

joint policy to contain COVID-19

The Supreme Court (SC) on Monday assailed the federal and Sindh governments over the ‘lack of transparency’ in relief measures taken in the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis, as it directed the Centre and all provincial governments to devise a joint policy to contain COVID-19, and submit a report on it within a week. However, legal experts question whether the court can issue any such direction under the light of the 18th amendment.

It is worth noting that the 18th Amendment is considered to be an important constitutional milestone in the history of Pakistan. It reverted the powers of the president to the parliament and made the provinces more powerful and autonomous. Matters like health and education have been given to the provinces for smooth functioning. So the question is: can there be a joint policy to contain COVID-19 in the presence of the 18th amendment?

According to details, Chief Justice of Pakistan (CJP) Gulzar Ahmad, who was heading the five-member bench that resumed hearing in the suo motu case pertaining to governmental efforts to combat the pandemic, noted that financial assistance being doled out through the Ehsaas Cash initiative ‘lacked transparency’.

The bench, which in the previous hearing ordered the government to provide protective gear to doctors, questioned the criterion being followed in the provision of face masks and other safety equipment. “How can billions be spent merely on the purchase of face masks and gloves?,” the top judge questioned, saying: “If there is an audit, things will become clear.”

Read More: Coronavirus in Pakistan: Who is playing politics in the midst of crisis?

The chief justice further remarked that relief steps appeared to be taken “only on the paper” as the government’s efforts to tackle the pandemic ‘remain unknown’. “Nothing is being told [to the court] as to how departments are working,” he said. He also pointed out that there was no joint policy to contain COVID-19.

Prime Minister Imran Khan was initially not in favor of ‘complete lockdown’. He offered several economic reasons behind his decision. However, provincial governments, experts, and media urged the prime minister to ensure that the lockdown is softened in order to ensure physical distancing so that the spread of the virus can be stopped.

Analysts believe that keeping into view Pakistan’s tattering economy, the premier’s position makes sense as increased economic depression might have led to total chaos in the country where not only the health system but also the security department would have collapsed.

Later on, the Prime Minister announced Corona Relief Tiger Force and Corona Relief Fund along with a multi-billion package involving relief for labor and underprivileged class, the business community and industries, and farmers.

Read More: Growing coronavirus cases among health workers in Pakistan; a major reason to worry!

Briefing the court, Federal Health Secretary Dr Tanveer Qureshi said that the virus has “certain types”, observing that the outbreak in Pakistan is not as serious as several European countries, including Italy and the US. The comparison did not sit well with the chief justice who ordered the secretary not to “compare Pakistan with those states”.

What is the qualification of Dr. Zafar Mirza?

Recently, Chief Justice of Pakistan Justice Gulzar Ahmed questioned the state’s preparedness in dealing with the crisis while hearing the petition pertaining to the release of under-trail prisoners amidst the coronavirus pandemic in the country.

The top judge questioned the government’s action plan regarding the spread of the virus and Special Assistant to the PM on Health Dr Zafar Mirza’s qualification. “What sort of an emergency has been imposed in the country where all the hospitals in the country have been closed?” Justice Gulzar remarked. “Private clinics in the country have also been closed.”

The top judge also questioned the qualification of SAPM Dr Mirza. “Zafar Mirza only comes on the television for projections. We are not chronologists. We just want to make sure the public is getting their basic rights.”

Read More: After WHO, Japan lauds Pakistan’s efforts in tackling Coronavirus pandemic

Notably, Zafar Mirza is a medical doctor with post-graduation in Public Health in Developing Countries from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and a clinical stint in mental health. He has served as the Director of Healthcare System Development at the WHO Regional Office for the Eastern Mediterranean. Dr Mirza is also a founder Executive Director of a civil society organization – The Network for Consumer Protection in Pakistan.

The 18th amendment made the provinces autonomous in order to create a cooperative federation in Pakistan. Hence, the federal government cannot devise a joint policy to contain COVID-19. As the PPP is ruling in Sindh, Pakistan’s epicenter of COVID-19, and following its own policy to soften or tighten the lockdown. As a rule, the federal government cannot compel it to follow a joint policy to contain COVID-19.

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