ISLAMABAD – Pakistan's prime minister said Monday he fears the new coronavirus will devastate the economies of developing nations, and warned richer economies to prepare to write off the debts of the world's poorer countries.
In an interview with The Associated Press, Imran Khan criticized recent comments by the president of neighboring Afghanistan, which appeared to reference accusations that Pakistan used militants to further its own goals in years past.
Khan also raised concern over India's worst Hindu-Muslim violence in decades, saying the Indian prime minister's Hindu nationalist-led government threatens to disenfranchise hundreds of millions of people through a controversial new citizenship law.
He further called for lifting sanctions against Iran, the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak in the Middle East.
Khan sat down with the AP at his office in the resplendent white-domed government headquarters in the capital of Islamabad. He'd spent much of his day meeting experts about the effect of the coronavirus outbreak in Pakistan, which has confirmed 183 cases so far.
“My worry is poverty and hunger," Khan said. "The world community has to think of some sort of a debt write-off for countries like us, which are very vulnerable, at least that will help us in coping with (the coronavirus).”
He said that if a serious outbreak happens in Pakistan, he's worried that his government's efforts to lift the ailing economy out of near-collapse would begin an unstoppable slide backward. Exports would fall off, unemployment would soar and an onerous national debt would become an impossible burden. Pakistan secured a $6 billion bailout from the International Monetary Fund last year.
The global virus pandemic presents the biggest test yet for Khan's populist leadership since he took office in 2018. He's mobilized Pakistan's young people, who are among his largest followers. His critics say he came to power with the help of the country's powerful military, and human rights groups say he's cracked down on critical media outlets.
“It's not just Pakistan. I would imagine the same in India, in the subcontinent, in African countries,” he said, referring to the virus. “If it spreads, we will all have problems with our health facilities. We just don't have that capability. We just don't have the resources.”
Most people who get the new coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness it causes experience only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough, and recover within weeks. But the virus is highly contagious and can be spread by people with no visible symptoms. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.
The pandemic comes just as a peace deal between the United States and the Taliban has given Afghanistan its best chance at ending its endless wars, and bringing U.S. troops home after nearly 19 years.
But the Taliban have a long and complicated relationship with Pakistan's military and intelligence services. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani recently said the insurgents need to demonstrate their commitment to peace by extricating themselves from Pakistan's influence. Some Afghan officials refer to Pakistan — particularly its military — as the Taliban's “masters.”
Khan called Ghani's comments “disappointing," and said that since taking office, he's worked hard with the U.S. to help cobble together a pace deal in Afghanistan.
"If anything, it should have been appreciation of the way Pakistan has gone about furthering the peace process,” Khan said.
"Pakistan is now a partner in peace for the U.S., which I always thought Pakistan should have been. Pakistan should never have been used as a sort of hired gun, which is the role which Pakistan was playing,” he explained. He said he has always opposed his country's participation in the “war on terror," calling it a waste of Pakistani lives and money.
Khan said he's also warned about violent strife on the other side of his eastern border, amid the rise Hindu nationalism in India.
“The worst nightmare of the world has happened — an extremist, racial party that believes in racial superiority has taken over a country of more than one billion people and has nuclear weapons,” he said.
“That's when I went to the United Nations" to warn of the danger posed by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist-led government, he said.
A new citizenship law in India fast-tracks naturalization for foreign-born religious minorities of all major faiths in South Asia, except Islam. There are about 280 million Muslims there.
Since the law's passing, India has been wracked by some of the worst sectarian violence in decades, as Hindus clashed with Muslims. There's some evidence of police aiding Hindu extremist attacks against Muslim neighborhoods, setting fire to a mosque.
Islamabad and New Delhi have a long history of bitter relations since gaining independence from British colonial rule in 1947.
Both sides claim the Himalayan region of Kashmir in its entirety, and the Indian-controlled portion is the only Muslim majority state in India. Tensions have been high there since last year after Modi’s government stripped the portion of Kashmir it controls of semi-autonomy and statehood.
In a further call for action from the international community, Khan said it was time to end U.S. sanctions on Iran, where one of the worst coronavirus outbreaks in the world has unfolded. Iran has struggled to respond in part because of crippling sanctions imposed by the Trump administration.
The outbreak in Iran has also hit close to home. Most of Pakistan's cases of the coronavirus and the COVID-19 illness it causes have been traced back to Iran, and all of the 21 Afghans who tested positive had traveled to Iran.
Khan said Iran is a “classic example” of a place where the humanitarian imperative to contain the outbreak outweighs political rivalries or economic dogmas.