Pakistan Study Group Report: April 2020
Dr Yatharth Kachiar

A meeting of the Pakistan Study Group was held via video conferencing on 29 April 2020. The main items on the agenda were the COVID-19 situation in Pakistan and China-Pakistan relations.

COVID-19 Situation in Pakistan
Impact on Civil-military Relations

In South Asia, Pakistan has the second-highest number of COVID-19 cases. The pandemic has exposed various fault lines in Pakistan. The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have been grossly mismanaged in Pakistan by the government of Prime Minister Imran Khan. Imran Khan’s reluctance in imposing an early and complete lockdown has been criticized by the Pakistani media. The opposition parties and civil society groups have been arguing that a complete lockdown is necessary for the containment of the virus. Despite Imran Khan’s reluctance, even the PTI-ruled provinces like Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have imposed a complete lockdown.

There is a possibility that the mismanagement of the present crisis could create a rift between Imran Khan and the army. Pakistan military’s persistent determination to dominate the civilian government could change the dynamics of the civil-military relations. In the worst-case scenario, the army might bring someone else in place of Imran Khan. Despite mishandling the crisis, the problem for the army in replacing Imran Khan is that it does not have a replacement yet. Moreover, Khan has proved useful in advancing the army’s institutional interests that have pleased the generals in Rawalpindi. At the same time, the charismatic appeal of Imran Khan at home and abroad has contributed in raising much-needed funds and in restoring Pakistan’s place within the international community. Such an arrangement suits the army since it is virtually ruling the country; deterioration in the situation would allow it to take the reins of governance into its hands though it would prefer to manoeuvre the situation from behind the curtains.

In any case, the Pakistan army has stepped in to handle the COVID-19 crisis under ‘aid to civil authority’ provisions of the constitution. The army has appointed Lt. General Hamood uz Zaman, the commander of army’s Air Defence Command, as the Chief coordinator of National Command and Operation Centre to deal with COVID-19 pandemic.

Impact on Centre-Provinces Relationship

In Pakistan, discussions have started about revising the 18th amendment. The revision could be linked to the pressure put by the army, which finds itself short of funds. The mismanagement of COVID-19 crisis by the government could be another factor. One excuse that is being used to justify the inability of Imran Khan to handle the pandemic systematically is that the provinces, especially Sindh, are not cohesively backing him. Despite the Federal government’s reluctance, many provinces including Balochistan, Sindh, Punjab, and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have taken the lead in imposing a complete lockdown. It indicates the lack of coordination and disagreement between the federal and provincial governments. The 18th amendment ensures provincial autonomy in various subjects, including health care. The military’s proactive entry into the scene to handle the pandemic is marked by disharmony between federal and provincial governments have raised serious concerns among analysts.

Role of Religion during the COVID-19 in Pakistan

During the COVID-19 pandemic, defying every norm of social distancing, the mosques in Pakistan are operating in a routine manner. It is not difficult to predict how it will impact Pakistan in terms of escalating the number of positive cases. Many doctors have appealed to the government on Television not to open mosques since the medical system in Pakistan barely manages to handle routine emergencies. The nature of current pandemic has proved disastrous even for the developed European countries. In order to bring religious leaders on board, President Arif Alvi sought a fatwa from the al-Azhar University in Egypt to suspend congregational prayers at mosques. Despite this, the ulemas in Pakistan insisted that closing mosques and stopping congregational prayers and sermons contravened the principles of Islam. Interestingly, it seems that the army was on board when it came to the opening of mosques in Pakistan. The Pakistan army has misappropriated Islam over the past several decades and established itself as the protector of the nation and its faith. Nevertheless, the rigid attitude of the religious leaders in Pakistan, driven by their narrow financial and political interests to remain relevant will have serious consequences for Islamabad.

The economic impact of COVID-19

The economic impact of COVID-19 on Pakistan can prove catastrophic. The United Nations latest report ‘The COVID-19 shock to the developing countries’ already warned that Pakistan could be the hardest-hit by the economic fallout of the coronavirus pandemic. To deal with the crisis, Pakistan has sought the USD 1.4 billion worth of emergency facility from the IMF. The loan was approved on April 16 by the IMF under its Rapid Financing Instrument Scheme. Moreover, Pakistan is also expected to receive around USD 1.5 billion relief in the form of delay in repayment of loans to bilateral creditors. Pakistan government’s reliance on foreign aid and loans is not sufficient in handling the current COVID-19 crisis. It is a short-sighted strategy and can prove disastrous for the economy.

At present, the IMF program is virtually dead, which means that for Pakistan, any incentive to continue the reforms in the economic sector is no longer there. According to reports, in April 2020, the IMF has postponed the second review of its USD 6 billion bailout package, citing a delay by the country in implementing the agreed actions. Since the IMF has already released a certain amount to Pakistan and has not officially suspended the program, this will ensure that the international financial institutions will continue to engage with the Imran Khan government. Pakistan is supposed to pay back USD 750 million in the current fiscal year and the same amount in the next fiscal year.

COVID-19 figures in Pakistan

The COVID-19 figures in Pakistan are less steep than India. The reason could be that either the exact figures are not available or the Pakistan government is handling the crisis well. It could also be that the peak has not come. However, the health infrastructure and facilities in Pakistan are inadequate and are not capable of handling the current crisis. Despite the dire state of the health infrastructure in Pakistan, the provincial governments, mainly the Sindh government has done a better job in handling the pandemic. It imposed the lockdown much earlier than the central government.

The initial prediction in Pakistan was that 50,000 people would get affected by COVID-19 pandemic by the end of April. The current numbers are, however, lower than the initial predictions. This indicates that either the numbers are fudged, or the earlier predictions were based on inaccurate assumptions and figures. It is indeed surprising that the low numbers of positive cases in Pakistan persist despite the delay by the government in deciding whether to go ahead with the lockdown or not and whether it should be a full lockdown or partial. As a result, a lot of community transmission has taken place in Pakistan during the initial days. Despite the lack of precautionary measures such as social distancing, the low number of COVID-19 cases in Pakistan indicates that the numbers are understated or fudged.

Further, on the issue of underreporting or suppression of COVID-19 figures in Pakistan, one should also consider the possibility that the virulence of COVID-19 in South Asia is less as compared to other parts of the world. The region is not seeing cases of excessive pressure on hospitals yet. In several cases, the earlier predictions of COVID-19 were made based on specific models which may or may not be accurate.

The Strategy of Youth and Faith

Imran Khan has focused on two elements to fight the COVID-19 pandemic - youth and faith. To mobilise the youth in the fight against coronavirus, Khan created the Corona Relief Tiger Force. The Corona Relief Tiger Force, a youth-based volunteer force, will work in collaboration with the government and security agencies to distribute food to the poor and work towards creating awareness about the pandemic. The newly formed force will receive basic training, and the volunteers will work in their respective provinces. There has been criticism regarding the Corona Relief Tiger Force, especially the opaque method used for the selection of volunteers. Many have labelled it as a politically motivated force consisting of PTI workers. Imran Khan also suggested fighting the COVID-19 pandemic in the country by relying on faith. Khan had said that Pakistan had to fight the war against the coronavirus with wisdom and faith since the country lacks ample resources like the US or China to impose complete lockdown/curfew for long.

Further, to combat the economic impact of COVID-19 crisis in Pakistan, Imran Khan announced the setting up of Prime Minister’s Relief Fund. Khan stated that the money received through this fund would be used for providing financial assistance to the poor people under the Ehsas Kifalat program. In addition to this, the cabinet approved Rs. 1200 billion relief package and decided to provide 2.2 million people with Rs. 12,000 monthly for four months under this program.

Handling of COVID-19 at Iran border

The Taftan border with Iran became a major entry point of COVID-19 cases into Pakistan. The Shia community of Pakistan often uses the Taftan border as a crossing point to travel to Iran for pilgrimage. After the rapid outbreak of COVID-19 in Iran, the pilgrims returned to Pakistan via this border. However, the mismanagement of quarantine facilities at the Taftan border combined with a lack of diagnostic kits made it difficult to stop the spread of the virus to the rest of the country. As the pilgrims travelled home, the provincial governments such as Sindh decided to set up its quarantine facility at the provincial border. The federal government’s failure to aid the Sindh government to deal with the returning pilgrims from Iran has been criticized widely by the opposition leaders. Pakistan closed the border with Iran on March 16 due to the rising cases of COVID-19 pandemic.

India-Pakistan relations

The COVID-19 pandemic which has brought the entire world to a standstill has not been able to suspend the Pakistan-sponsored violence along the Line of Control (LOC) and in Kashmir. When India and the world are preoccupied with Coronavirus pandemic, the ‘deep state’ in Pakistan has enhanced the ceasefire violations and terrorist activities in Jammu and Kashmir. India lost its five Special Forces personnel while foiling an infiltration bid in the Keran sector, and again three CRPF personnel were killed in an attack in Handwara. According to reports, in March 2020, India recorded 411 ceasefire violations. Also, there have been reports suggesting that Pakistan is not only targeting India militarily but also in cyber and information domain. Many fake twitter handles impersonating Arab personalities have emerged from Pakistan. These Twitter handles were aimed at creating a wedge between India and its Gulf partners. The Security agencies have also reported the emergence of a new terrorist outfit named ‘The Resistance Front’ in Kashmir. It is another attempt by Pakistan to pass of its terrorist proxy group as an indigenous movement. Further, in March 2020, Pakistan also attempted to sabotage India’s attempt to build regional humanitarian collaboration to fight the COVID-19 pandemic during the meeting of SAARC nations via video conferencing. Instead of adding substance to the region’s attempt at tackling the pandemic, Islamabad used the platform to raise political issues such as Kashmir.

Pakistani Migrants in the Gulf

At present, when the Pakistani economy is under tremendous pressure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the fall in remittances from abroad will enhance trouble for Islamabad. According to the IMF report, during the fiscal year 2020-2021, Pakistan’s remittances will drop by USD 5 billion. With the dwindling oil prices and sinking global economy, 4.5 million Pakistani migrant workers in the Gulf countries are facing an uncertain future. The initial reports suggest that around 13,000 Pakistani workers lost their job in UAE alone, and more than 60,000 expatriates have registered to return to Pakistan from the gulf region. The remittance from the Gulf region is an essential source of foreign exchange reserves for Pakistan. Millions of Pakistani migrant workers scattered across the gulf countries send around USD 24 billion annually as remittances to Islamabad. To keep foreign exchange reserve afloat, Pakistan will either have to resort to more borrowing externally or lower the investment in various crucial economic sectors. Both options will hurt GDP growth. Further, as Pakistan starts repatriating its citizens from the Gulf countries, it will be a challenging task for Islamabad to ensure the testing and quarantine facilities for such a large number of returnees.

China-Pakistan Relations

At this particular time, during the COVID-19 crisis, when the whole world is demanding accountability from China, Beijing is in dire need of friends and allies. At the same time, Pakistan’s frail economy also requires financial support which it can readily receive from a friendly country like China. Beijing is already extending massive humanitarian assistance for the COVID-19 pandemic to Pakistan. At the same time, Islamabad also sees the pandemic as an opportunity to get debt relief from China. Pakistan Foreign Minister raised the issue of debt relief prior to the G-20 meeting as well. The current disruption caused by the pandemic will have repercussion on the ongoing projects of the China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). Pakistan authorities have already stated that the CPEC projects will face delays. Pakistan has requested China to ease payment obligations in major power projects that are part of the infrastructure project.

Further, Pakistan and China have used the current pandemic crisis to strengthen their relations. When the pandemic first erupted in China, the foreign minister of Pakistan was the first foreign dignitary to visit Beijing. On 13 February 2020, the National Assembly of Pakistan passed a resolution praising China’s efforts against COVID-19 and lauding China’s help to Pakistani nationals stranding in Wuhan during the crisis. The Chinese foreign ministry highly commended the resolution passed by Islamabad, which noted that both the countries are close neighbours with a fine tradition of helping each other. At the same time, President Xi Xinping also spoke to PM Imran Khan.
Further, to express solidarity with Beijing President Arif Alvi visited Beijing in mid-March when the COVID-19 crisis was at its peak. At the end of the visit, the two countries issued a joint statement which applauded China’s efforts to eradicate the disease, and reiterated their close association and pledged to protect each other’s core interests. Following the visit, the Khunjerab pass in Gilgit Baltistan in Pakistan-occupied Jammu & Kashmir was opened, and China began transporting aid and equipment through this pass to help Pakistan in its fight against the pandemic.

According to Chinese Embassy in Islamabad, Beijing has handed over at least 2 tonnes of masks, test kits, ventilators, Personal Protective Equipment worth Rs 67 million to Pakistani officials at Khunjerab pass. Further, Beijing is helping Pakistan in setting up temporary hospitals to deal with the rising numbers of COVID-19 patients. Pakistan received another tranche of testing kits and equipment from China via special cargo flights, which also ferried Chinese specialists and health workers to execute relief measures in Pakistan. Also, private Chinese entities such as Alibaba Foundation are providing relief equipment to Islamabad.

In short, the COVID-19 pandemic has given a push to the China-Pakistan relations. China’s support to Pakistan during the pandemic is not surprising since the more than five-decades-old relationship rests on solid foundations of mutual benefit and strategic convergences. While countries, including India, swiftly moved out its citizens from Wuhan when the crisis began, Pakistan chose not to evacuate its citizens — mostly about 1000 students, to avoid embarrassing China, despite heavy criticism at home. The policymakers in India should be wary of the fact that China is never going to abandon its relations with Pakistan. As Pakistan grows weaker, China will be able to wield more control over Islamabad. Pakistan is already receiving much assistance from China, and there is no doubt that China will continue to back them. Without China’s aid, Pakistan would find it difficult to achieve much on its own. The dwindling economy is a massive concern for Pakistan. The negative growth is likely to happen across the globe. Pakistan will also have to deal with the loss of remittances from the gulf and return of migrants.


Due to COVID-19 pandemic, the world is still in a phase where there is much uncertainty. How fundamentally the situation has changed because of COVID-19 is difficult to predict at the moment. The COVID-19 crisis may pan out in the coming months. If Pakistan descends into a chaos of any kind such as economic, political, social, or the situation gets out of control, then there could be a change in the dynamics between Imran Khan and army. Otherwise, PM Khan is likely to continue.

Also, Pakistan is an essential piece in Chinese strategy. Beijing will never relinquish its support for Pakistan. It is highly likely that Islamabad will pursue more adventurous policies in case chaos develops in the country due to the pandemic crisis. Further, the relations between the United States and Pakistan are more likely to improve in the short run due to the situation in Afghanistan. Also, it is an election year for the Americans, which will force them to look inward rather than taking the lead in solving the global challenges. Pakistan could use the current situation to get more bailouts. The IMF may come out with more bailouts for Pakistan.

The Report is based on the discussion held during the meeting of the Pakistan Study Group which was held via video conferencing on 29 April 2020.

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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