Can Covid scandal undo Imran Khan?

Can Covid scandal undo Imran Khan?

Dark clouds of corruption are looming large over Prime Minister Imran Khan’s fourth year in the saddle. Though he still remains loud and adamant about blaming his arch rivals of corruption, the web of corruption is slowly but inevitably dragging him into the vortex.

Though there have been on and off reports of scandals in infrastructure projects, Imran Khan has remained almost untouched in a country known for its mega scandals and corruption. But the covid scandal could undo this `honeymoon` period if the Pakistani media and political parties take up the colossal hoodwinking of people driven to a wall of despair by the epidemic.

The covid scandal, exposed by the government’s own auditor general early this year, is a clear case of stealing public money meant for helping the needy and medical staff struggling to deal with the aftereffects of a global pandemic. The auditor general’s report showed a massive hole in the war chest—an amount of Rs 40 billion ($200 million), much of it meant for labourers unemployed by the pandemic since March 2020. The government had planned to give Rs 12000 for three months to a sizeable number of unemployed labourers from a special fund of Rs 100 billion. But as the audit report showed, almost half of the money went missing during the distribution.

The stolen amount could be several times bigger as the Imran Khan government has refused relevant papers to the government audit body. The amount which remained unaudited crosses over Rs 354.3 billion, almost one-third of the total financial package decided by Prime Minister Imran Khan in March 2020.

Here is the catch. The distribution of the money should have been routed through the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA). But in reality, not a single penny went through the designated official channel but through other `official` means, for instance, the Federal Ministers and Finance Ministry.

The result was perhaps Imran Khan’s biggest scandal—thousands of rich, dead and fake persons benefited from the multi-billion rupee Covid relief and activities while the medical staff and those who were in dire need of

financial help were left out. Where did it disappear? Who were the beneficiaries? Why is Prime Minister Imran Khan silent?

The scandal has been so embarrassing for Prime Minister Khan that he chose to keep the government audit report on the utilization of the Covid funds under wraps for six months before being forced to make it public recently under pressure from the International Monetary Fund (IMF). The release of the report was one of the five conditions set by the IMF to disburse a $1 billion loan by January 2022.

Instead of assisting the audit body and punishing the corrupt, the government worked overtime to ensure that the scandal does not attract too much media attention while Prime Minister Imran Khan decided to go on an offensive against his arch political rivals to hoodwink the people.

Even the bare details of the scam, brought to public by Auditor General of Pakistan, should make Imran Khan’s loud protestations about corruption hollow. As per the government decision, the relief package of Rs 1200 billion should have been distributed to the needy persons, the medical staff and labourers who lost their livelihood to the epidemic shutdown. But the reality, as the report found out, was entirely different. Much of the money which should have been given in cash to unemployed labourers had been usurped along the way. There is no account of the money distribution. Imran Khan’s Minister Khusro Bahktiar and the Finance Ministry are making excuses to forestall divulging any details of money distributed to labourers. Much of the missing Rs 40 billion ($200 million) comes from a Rs 100-billion emergency fund set up to provide 20.2 million persons with Rs 12,000 on a monthly basis for four months.

The medical staff at the covid wards in the Pakistan Institute of Medical Sciences, the largest hospital in Pakistan’s federal capital Islamabad, has received only half of their salaries. A large sum spent on procuring emergency medical kits and medicines meant for covid wards across the country either went to buy fake medicines or medicines and kits at far higher rates than market prices.

The covid scandal is another blow to Prime Minister Khan’s anti-corruption image. He has been slowly but inevitably getting drawn into the corruption net as the Panama Papers leakage showed early this year. The papers revealed two members of his cabinet, Water Resources Minister Moonis Elahi and Finance Minister Shaukat Tarin, of stashing their savings into foreign accounts.

The big question today in Pakistan is whether the Covid scandal could undo the clean image of Prime Minister Imran Khan, the only political weapon he has to keep his rivals at bay. (Courtesy Alarabiya Post)

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