Press Coverage

Experts see rising digitisation in age of Covid


Speakers and experts in diverse fields discuss different aspects of Covid-19 impact on Pakistan and its people, at the inaugural plenary of 4-day 23rd Sustainable Development Conference (SDC), highlighting that the silver lining in this grim scenario is the acceleration of digital transformation in all sectors of life.

The conference, titled ‘Sustainable Development in the Times of Covid-19’, was organised by the Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI) in Islamabad on Monday. The event also included a penal discussion on social protection and a concurrent session on media’s role.

Speaking at the inaugural plenary, Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) Secretary General, Vladimir Norov said that the digital economy and cross-border e-commerce would play an increasingly important role in rebuilding the world economy after the pandemic.

“In times of Covid-19, global online retail sales are on the rise, and additional jobs are being created,” he said, according to a press release issued here. He added that the SCO development strategy 2025 also focused on “the early recovery of our economies” from the pandemic.

Ambassador Shafqat Kakakhel, the chairperson of SDPI Board of Governors, in his welcome address, said that efforts to contain the spread of the virus through lockdowns, restricting all kinds of human activities, had led to huge financial losses.

“These measures have impeded socio-economic development, accelerated unemployment, deepened poverty, disrupted food supply chain and threat to food security in many regions,” he said, adding that industrial production, trade, educational and cultural activities and health facilities had been affected.

SDPI Executive Director Dr Abid Qaiyum Suleri highlighted the key facets of Food Security Dashboard, which has been developed jointly by the SDPI and the National Security Division, government of Pakistan, and will be launched during the upcoming days of the conference.

Dr Suleri said Covid-19 has turned into a shadow pandemic for women and girls. “On the one hand, the core agenda of SGDs [Sustainable Development Goals] seems to be compromised, but on the other, there is a silver lining, as it has brought social sector development back on the radar of governments.”

SDPI Joint Executive Director Dr Vaqar Ahmed welcomed the digital transformation approach of the SCO. He added that SDPI looked forward to working with SCO secretariat in its endeavours to promote peace and development in the region.

At a penal discussion on ‘Setting Pakistan’s Agenda for Universal Social Protection (USP)’, Interprovincial Coordination Minister Dr Fehmida Mirza emphasised the importance of social protection as an indispensable part of policymaking.

The emphasised on building coordination between the federal and provincial governments to remove financial barriers, enhance income and food security, protecting and providing jobs, and delivering social protection by structural reformation to address shocks like Covid-19 and others.

Discussing the importance of universal social protection, Ingrid Christensen and Maiko Ouchi called for equitable development and said that access to social protection was recognised as a basic human right – with especial relevance to the SDG targets, underpinning the need for leaving no one behind.

Faisal Rifaq, the CEO of Prime Minister’s Health Insurance Scheme, Lire Ersado of the World Bank Group and Haris Gazdar from IDEAS, remarked that good health was essential for the economic and social growth and the national databases – like NADRA – have become indispensable.

Meanwhile, speaking at a panel titled ‘Economic Growth, Social Protection, and the International IMF Programme amid Covid-19’, former finance minister Dr Hafiz Pasha said that “we did not have a big number of Covid-19 cases” but still the country saw a significant reduction in its GDP growth.

“Our independent estimate is that [GDP] growth fell by -2.5% during fiscal year 2019-20 and will only remain 1% during the ongoing fiscal year. This is the largest decline since early 2000s. Almost 70% of the displaced workers are from the informal sector, which will bring implications for welfare,” he said.

Furthermore, Dr Pasha added, the stock of unemployed workers had doubled due to Covid-19. “The central bank of Pakistan reduced the interest rate, which was a big move and [has] increased liquidity in transitional period.”

Pasha said that remittances increased 27% thanks to the workers abroad, while the government’s Ehsaas programme also brought fruitful results, adding that a fiscal crunch was still the main issue. There will be large debt servicing payments in the future. It seems that Pakistan has no option except to go back to IMF”, he concluded.

Dr Jochen Hippler, the Head of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Pakistan, highlighting the different aspects of Covid impact on the national economy, said that development of Covid-19 vaccine was operated by international powers like US and other European states.

Dr Bushra Yasmin from the Fatima Jinnah Women’s University, Rawalpindi, said that the poor were highly vulnerable to diseases and disasters. She added that that the coronavirus pandemic had hit the youth in terms of their jobs, education, and training.

During a concurrent session on the ‘Role of Media Amid Covid-19 Outbreak: From Pakistan and Beyond’, Joydeep Gupta, a senior media analyst from India, said that a combination of ignorance and empathy had been observed in the overall media industry, which needed special attention of the government.

Ram Sharam Sedhai, a senior media analyst from Nepal, said that the media houses needed to take special care of their reporters and other staff being the frontline forces by taking care of their physical activities at professional level. Senior anchors Asma Shirazi and Arifa Noor also spoke on the occasion.

Titles of other panels included: ‘Education Methods in Covid-19 Response: Assessing Gendered Impact’; and ‘Literature, Language and Technology in the Time of Covid-19’. A book ‘Rah Guzar to Dekho’ by Karamat Ali was also launched on the occasion.