Pakistan launches volunteer group, relief fund to blunt impact of COVID-19

By Adeel Saeed

A man April 1 on the outskirts of Islamabad rides a motorbike along with his family during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown against the COVID-19 coronavirus. [Farooq Naeem/AFP]

A man April 1 on the outskirts of Islamabad rides a motorbike along with his family during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown against the COVID-19 coronavirus. [Farooq Naeem/AFP]

PESHAWAR -- The Pakistani government has established a special youth volunteer force to distribute food to citizens at home and to boost awareness of the coronavirus amid a lockdown aimed at helping curtail the spread of the disease.

The global pandemic has caused 2,291 confirmed cases including 31 deaths in Pakistan as of Thursday (April 2).

Prime Minister Imran Khan in an address to the nation Monday (March 30) announced the formation of the volunteer group, dubbed the "Corona Relief Tiger Force". Authorities began registering volunteers Tuesday (March 31).

"The Tiger Force will work in aid of civil and military authorities in relief operations besides creating awareness among the masses of the threat of the coronavirus and its preventive measures," Khan said.

A social media posting announces Pakistan's launch on March 31 of a new volunteer force to help fight the coronavirus. [PTI]

A social media posting announces Pakistan's launch on March 31 of a new volunteer force to help fight the coronavirus. [PTI]

The government also has launched a Corona Relief Fund that will provide assistance to impoverished Pakistanis hit hardest by the fallout of the COVID-19 virus.

Individuals including wealthy Pakistanis living abroad may donate to the fund and receive tax incentives, without being asked any questions about the source of their funds, said Khan.

The efforts by the government come after Khan March 25 announced the establishment of a separate Rs. 1.2 trillion ($7.5 billion) financial relief package to help cushion the impact of the coronavirus on the country's economy.

The fund will help reduce the price of fuel, provide an Rs. 3,000 ($18.75) monthly stipend for workers and mitigate a liquidity crunch for exporters and the industrial sector.

Malls, restaurants and public places have been closed in parts of Pakistan in an effort to halt the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

The national lockdown will continue for another two weeks until April 14, Planning Minister Asad Umar said Wednesday (April 1) while addressing media in Islamabad.

A population already hurt by militancy

The measures are being hailed by various segments of society, including those still struggling to recover from the impact of terrorism and militancy.

"The coronavirus infection has intensified the suffering of terrorism-hit civilians, making them more vulnerable to disease -- especially those who are still residing in camps in the Bakakhel area in Bannu District," said Mir Kalam Wazir, a member of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) Provincial Assembly from North Waziristan District.

According to Wazir, about 2,000 families are still unable to return to their homes in North Waziristan and are living in squalid conditions at camps set up at Bakakhel.

Should the coronavirus reach this facility, the results will be catastrophic for them, with many still coping with hardships they faced due to terrorism, he said.

Wazir lauded the formation of the Tiger Force and emphasised the importance of the group's task of raising awareness among the masses about preventive measures.

In rural areas, knowledge of the coronavirus, its impact on health, the sources of its spread and preventive measures is minimal, Wazir said.

The disease will deal a terrible blow to communities already devastated by militancy, said Hayat Preghal, a resident of South Waziristan District.

"I am unable to express the difficulties and hardships faced by us due to the [militant] bombing of our shops and houses in South Waziristan," he said.

Families of a large number of daily labourers in South Waziristan Agency will face great difficulty when preventive measures keep residents from leaving their homes and working, he added.

Still, the efforts being made by the government to relieve neediness and to fight the virus have lifted hope, he said.

The virus is compounding the difficult living conditions of many in the tribal areas, said Mohmand District resident Muhammad Shafiq Safi.

"The fear and spread of the coronavirus have added to the miseries of tribe members who recall the nightmare we faced while staying in camps during displacement," he said.

One of the main problems is the restriction on movement, which makes it difficult to buy needed items, not to mention the scarcity of daily necessities and soaring prices due to the outbreak of the coronavirus, Safi said.

"The relief package and the Tiger Force announced by the government are a blessing for tribesmen who are already living in miserable conditions due to the menace of terrorism and militancy in their native areas," he added.

Reaching out to the distressed

"Prime Minister Imran Khan's decision to engage youngsters in the fight against the coronavirus is a welcome step, and I am ready to volunteer my service for this noble cause," said Bilal Rehman, a young social worker from Peshawar who is already working with the Tars (Mercy) Foundation.

As a volunteer of the Tars Foundation, he has already worked to help victims of terrorism and militancy who were displaced from their native areas and forced to live in camps set up by the government, he said.

"Wherever the government wants our service, we will provide it because residents of Pakistan and especially [KP] -- including the newly merged tribal districts -- are already experiencing hard times due to the decades-long wave of terrorism and militancy that caused destruction and chaos in the country," he added.

"The formation of the Tiger Force to combat the deadly coronavirus contagion is a good step for reaching out to the distressed segments of society," said Haji Ghulam Ali, a businessman and founder of the Tribal Chamber of Commerce and Industry in Peshawar.

Economic activities in the tribal belt of Pakistan remain stalled by militancy and terrorism, and the preventive measures against the coronavirus will only further aggravate the situation, he added.

Wealthy Pakistanis need to come forward and help the needy as the resources of the government are not enough to provide full relief to the distressed masses, Ali said.

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