On the evening of the 13th of March 2020, the chairman of the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) General Muhammad Afzal was called to attend an important national security meeting at the PM house. The meeting was attended by the prime minister, military chiefs and the federal cabinet. This important meeting was specifically called on the Covid situation in Pakistan and for taking action for its mitigation and management. One of the urgent actions taken in the meeting was that section 32 of the NDMA Act 2010 was invoked. This section states:
“Where by reasons of any impending disaster the national authority is satisfied that immediate procurement of provisions or materials or immediate application of resources are necessary for rescue or relief, it can authorise the concerned department or authority to make emergency procurement and in that case the standard procedure requiring inviting the tenders shall be deemed to be waives.”
Chairman NDMA was instructed to take immediate measures to ensure the availability of necessary equipment for the frontline health workers. On his return to office that very night, the chairman NDMA gave instructions to his staff to contact every known manufacturer of personal protective equipment (PPE) or masks in Pakistan. The factory owners were called and asked to keep their factories running at full capacity and to manufacture as much material as they could within the shortest possible time.
This was just the commencement of the herculean task of procurement and provision of a massive amount of material, equipment and resources for a country totally ill prepared for the pandemic. There was no materials or equipment available in the warehouse of NDMA nor any readily available in the market. Every single item had to be procured and without losing precious time. At that point, NDMA had the complete authority to buy whatever was needed at whatever price it was available. There was no time for negotiations and haggling.
On 24th March 2020, PM Imran khan unveiled a multi-billion-dollar relief package for the Corona pandemic approved by the federal cabinet in a meeting chaired by him and attended by COAS Gen Qamar Javed Bajwa. On the 31st of March 2020, the 1,200-billion-Pak-Rupees Corona Relief Package was approved by the Economic Coordination Committee (ECC) headed by the then advisor to the PM on Finance Hafeez Sheikh.
According to a notification by the government, a Rs-100-billion emergency fund was set up to deal with the impact of the pandemic. ECC approved to provide 20.2 million people Rs 12,000 on a monthly basis for four months via the “Ehsaas Kifalat Programme.”
Rs 200 billion were allocated for daily wage earners and labourers to be distributed through the ministry of industries. The Federal Bureau of Revenue was tasked to issue Rs 75 billion in tax refunds.
Rs 30 billion were allocated for textile exporters as payment of duty drawbacks. A Rs 6 billion grant was approved for the Pakistan Railways. Another Rs 50 billion was set aside for procurement of medical supplies. A hefty Rs 280 billion was allocated for procurement of wheat to stock it for use in future.
Out of the total package, only Rs 25.3 billion was allocated to NDMA, which was leading efforts to provide medical supplies to frontline health workers.
Meanwhile NDMA was already procuring surgical masks, N95 masks, PPEs, gloves and whatever was needed for 30,000 frontline health workers. But other than the very basic material, there was nothing much available in Pakistan. According to the plan approved by the ECC, the Pakistan Embassy in Beijing was instructed to procure the necessary equipment from China urgently. 50 million US Dollars were transferred to the Embassy and all the purchases in China were made by the Pakistan embassy. NDMA also transferred another 30 million US dollars out of its own allocated funds to the Pakistan Embassy in China for the purchase of equipment.
At that juncture, equipment in China was in high demand and top dollars were being offered for it by the countries worst hit by the pandemic. It is interesting to mention that all the negotiations with the Chinese government for the procurement of equipment – including testing kits, ventilators, masks, oxygen, etc – were done by the government and the top ranking army officials who successfully negotiated with the Chinese government and made sure that it would provide the equipment to Pakistan without any delay and at a reasonable price. NDMA was not part of the negotiations or the purchase in China.
In April 2020, the Chinese government donated a sum of 4 million US Dollars to Pakistan, which was given to NDMA to set up a fully functional Covid hospital in Islamabad. NDMA however did not use that fund. Instead, it utilised already existing funds for the construction and operationalisation of the Infectious Disease Hospital in Islamabad.
The total spending of NDMA till December 2020 was 12.5 billion Pak Rupees, that was used for purchasing 1.8 million testing kits, 1,261 ICU ventilators, extraction machines, X-ray machines, PPEs, PCR machines etc. In addition to that it also included establishment of quarantine centers in Karachi, Torkham, Chaman, Taftan, handling of passengers in private hotels in Islamabad, 26 flights from Pakistan to China and oxygenation of hospital beds in hospitals all over Pakistan. There was no further purchase made by NDMA after August 2020.
As NDMA was making huge procurements , questions regarding its transparency were raised in the media and in the first week of May 2020, the Chairman NDMA was called by the Supreme Court of Pakistan (SCP) in a suo moto notice and to explain the purchases for medical equipment and material. By 1st May 2020 there were only 18,114 reported cases in Pakistan and a remark was made in the Supreme Court (SC) that it seemed there was Rs 2.5 million available per patient. But this was an erroneous observation as the situation was still developing and cases were on the rise all over the country. By the 31st of December 2020, the total number of cases rose to 479,719 and the number of deaths to 10,105. On the next hearing, a 480-page report of all the expenditure was submitted to the SCP by the NDMA. The Chief Justice concluded that the SCP was not concerned with the money being spent to cope with the coronavirus pandemic, but the “quality of services” being provided across the country.
NDMA also sent huge consignments of relief materials to other countries – including Azerbaijan, Iraq, Afghanistan and many others. It is interesting to note that even now there is around Rs 6.7 billion worth of inventory available in NDMA’s warehouses, which is unutilised.
The Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP) in a report has detected Rs 40 billion worth of irregularities in the COVID-19-related activities. Pakistan concededed to the pressure of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) after six months of keeping the report concealed.
The impression that the total relief package of Rs 1,200 billion was routed through NDMA is totally false. The irregularities in the relief package mentioned in the AGP report have been mostly in the “Ehsaas programme” – where cash was distributed to recipients. Minister Khusro Bahktiar and the Finance Ministry have to give the details of the money that was to be distributed to labourers. The ECC should give an explanation of the amounts approved and the distributions made so far (or otherwise).
Prime Minister Imran Khan, who claims transparency and the rule of law, must himself give details of the funds allocated for Covid relief, which were approved by the ECC. It would not be appropriate to let a cloud of doubt hang over the whole affair.