Safety first on CPEC

With the virus outbreak overlapping with the Chinese New Year vacations for many of them, the 14-day quarantine period was followed by Chinese workers leading up to the first half of February

A two-member task force from Islamabad on Monday met with Pakistani students stuck in Wuhan, the Chinese city which became the hub of the outbreak of coronavirus last month. The Pakistan Embassy in Beijing confirmed that four Pakistani students in Wuhan, who can contracted the virus, have recovered completely.

The death toll from the virus crossed 2,000 on Tuesday. Over 70,000 cases of coronavirus have been reported over the past month, with 80% of them being mild. While the frequency and the intensity of the virus’ spread has been gradually curtailed over the past couple of weeks, the precautionary measures continue to be taken around the world.

The ramifications were grave for Pakistan from the get-go, given the frequency of trade and other exchanges with neighbouring country China. Pakistani traders have reported massive losses over the past month given the travel restrictions in place.

$1.5 billion worth of imports are brought in by Pakistani traders every month, with customs clearances taking significantly longer this month. Last fiscal year, the bilateral trade between the two countries stood at $15.6 billion.

Under these circumstances, the most pertinent question marks have been slashed over the $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the impact the spread of virus would have on the projects.

In addition to thousands of other Chinese citizens working in other projects in the country, and thousands of Pakistanis that travel to China for work and other engagements, around 15,000 Chinese individuals have been working exclusively on CPEC projects.

With the virus outbreak overlapping with the Chinese New Year vacations for many of them, the 14-day quarantine period was followed by Chinese workers leading up to the first half of February. The work on CPEC projects was temporarily halted at the end of January, most notably in South Punjab.

As far as progress on CPEC is confirmed, the coronavirus epidemic couldn’t have come at a worse time. After more than a year of dillydallying, which saw Beijing express its concerns with regards to the progress on the projects in conversations with the incumbent Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf (PTI) government, the second phase of CPEC was officially unveiled at the turn of 2019.

The second phase focuses on the development of nine Special Economic Zones (SEZs) across the country. Last month, Prime Minister Imran Khan inaugurated the Allama Iqbal Industrial City in Punjab’s SEZ.

Given Pakistan’s geographical and commercial proximity with China, it was considered a matter of time before a coronavirus case is reported in the country. Furthermore, given the lack of health infrastructure and mechanisms needed to cope with a potential spread of the virus in the country, alarm bells have been ringing over the past month throughout the country – with regards to a coping strategy to deal with the epidemic, and also vis-à-vis the pursuance of commercial obligations with China on CPEC and elsewhere.

Even so, where 27 countries have so far reported coronavirus cases at the time of writing, Pakistan isn’t one of them. The country, however, remains on high alert, with government officials maintaining that even though the virus is yet to impact the country, they are taking the required safety precautions.

“We were concerned given that there is massive traffic between Pakistan and China, especially owing to CPEC. Around 50,000 Chinese individuals work in Pakistan. All of those in in Punjab, in addition to the Chinese security personnel, have been thoroughly screened,” said Punjab Health Minister Dr Yasmin Rashid.

There has been criticism of the government’s dealing of the crisis with regards to the safety of the Pakistanis in China. While the diplomatic task-force managed to travel to Wuhan to check in with the Pakistanis stuck there, the government’s earlier lack of proactivity in helping out its citizens in China had initially come under the spotlight.

Critics argued that the government was avoiding taking any step that might offend Beijing. Multiple reports and government officials have confirmed that the delay over CPEC irked the Chinese government as well. In fact, the incumbent Pakistani government’s initial suggestions that it wanted a review of the CPEC agreements had offended Beijing.

However, government officials and party insiders maintain that the health and welfare of Pakistani citizens comes first.

“According to International Health Regulations, when an outbreak of international concern is declared, it has certain implications. But [so far] the implications have not restricted travel or trade [because of] the way China has handled the outbreak,” said Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Health Dr Zafar Mirza.

“They put in place public health measures, and they have actually implemented it. We are very very appreciative of what China has done. China has saved the world… from a lethal pandemic.”

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