Pakistan faces a long recessionary phase, bankruptcies, massive job losses and rising poverty after the onset of the coronavirus and subsequent lockdowns in the country. It will need massive resources to rebuild its economy, revive businesses, create jobs and improve social safety nets in years to come. The job becomes more difficult in the wake of a large population, which is still growing at a rate of 2.4pc. The smartest way for Pakistan to resolve its longstanding issues is to check the population growth.
Though the death rate from the coronavirus is still low as compared to other countries of the world, yet the World Health Organization (WHO) has warned that the number of the cases in Pakistan could exceed 200,000 by mid-July if the country does not take “effective interventions” to curb its spread. It said the economic impact of the rapid spread of Covid-19 would be just as devastating as easing restrictions to boost the economy. On the other hand, Prime Minister Imran Khan believes that more people would die of hunger than the pandemic if the government did not ease lockdowns.
The virus has already spread in more than 115 districts of Pakistan—largely in the Punjab and Sindh provinces. The outbreak is creating significant additional pressure on an already overburdened healthcare system, exacerbating the vulnerabilities of affected populations. Experts say the pandemic poses a huge challenge to the government and people of Pakistan and the most cost-effective and expeditious way to meet it is to slow the population growth. It can help the country achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in order to attain universal healthcare and education standards and pull people out of poverty.
The devastation caused by the pandemic is a rude reminder to countries, like Pakistan, which have neglected social sector investments, particularly health and education. Pakistan’s ranking on the UNDP’s Human Development Index (HDI) stood last year at 152 out of 189 countries — 13pc below the average HDI of South Asia, including Bangladesh and India. India is ranked 129. Pakistan spends only 1.12pc of GDP on health, well below the minimum required average of 4pc.
According to a recent report of the Population Council, a cut in the population growth could be the most cost-effective and expeditious intervention to achieve Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for Pakistan. “Increased investment in family planning programmes could accelerate Pakistan’s progress across social, economic and environmental areas of sustainable development,” it said. In February 2015, the Pakistan government adopted the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through a unanimous parliamentary resolution. The strategic shift put considerable responsibility on the government and its development partners to address the unmet agenda of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), while initiating the SDGs through development cooperation for strengthening public institutions, social policies and planning development programmes.
The current pace of the population growth at 2.4pc directly hampers Pakistan’s efforts to meet 12 out of 17 SDGs. “In Pakistan, every $1 spent on contraceptive services saves $2.50 in maternal and newborn healthcare. By investing in robust family planning programmes, Pakistan can significantly pull more people out of poverty by improving maternal and infant survival, nutrition, educational attainment and the status of girls and women. The rapid population growth, therefore, is one of the biggest challenges confronting Pakistan that impedes achieving Sustainable Development Goals in the country,” the report observed.
Explaining the impact of the rapid population growth, the report reveals that Pakistan ranks 78th out of 113 countries on the Global Food Security Index (2019). One out of three children is out of school in Pakistan. Its population is growing so fast that it can’t achieve Universal Primary Education until 2075. It is one of the third most water-stressed countries in the world. Per capita water availability in Pakistan has dropped from 5,600 cubic meters at the time of independence to the current level of 861 cubic meters and it is projected to decline further.
If the contraceptive prevalence rate rises from the current 34pc to 54pc, it can save 4,900 mothers and 140,000 infants from dying every year. If Pakistan is closer to the fertility levels of the rest of the region i.e. 2.1pc, a total of 40 million fewer Pakistanis would be living in poverty and only 1.6 million children would be out of school. To harness its demographic dividends, Pakistan will need to break out of stagflation and venture into sustained growth; creating more and better jobs for women and men; and profiting from the “youth bulge” by investing in them. By 2050, 224 million more people will be looking for jobs.
The level of urbanization in Pakistan is the highest in South Asia. The urban population of Pakistan is likely to cross the proportion of the rural population by 2050. The report said that family planning is one of the smartest SDG priorities, with sweeping social, economic, and environmental benefits. “Socioeconomic reforms combined with family planning investment provide the largest benefits to Pakistan,” it added. The report further said that one of the SDGs pertaining to good health and well-being aims to ensure universal access to reproductive healthcare services, including family planning—considered one of the most cost-effective targets. It suggests investing in family planning as a necessary step for achieving many of the SDGs.
The pandemic poses a huge challenge to Pakistan. It has exposed all sectors of Pakistan, including its social safety nets, healthcare and education. Its leadership will have to change its mindset and divert huge resources to human development and improve the quality of life.