ISLAMABAD, May 17 (DNA): China will invest in human development infrastructure under CPEC by launching Pakistan as a pilot country for the Health Silk Road (HSR), says Pakistan’s Economic Haroon Sharif in an article published by Gwadar Pro.

He recalled in May 24, 2020, Wang Yi, China’s Foreign Minister said China will work with other countries along the Belt and Road to vigorously promote cooperation on the Health Silk Road (HSR) as after the epidemic, the need for cooperation in the field of public health will increase significantly. China’s commitment to BRI projects remained unchanged.

The article added, Chinese President Xi Jinping pledged that a Covid-19 vaccine from China will be made a “global public good”. Following this, the Chinese government also announced that the vaccines will be made available in an equitable manner and at a fair and reasonable price.

Unlike the United States, China has joined COVAX partnership to ensure timely and affordable availability of Covid-19 vaccine to poor countries.

China’s National Biotech Group, a subsidiary of Sinopharm, is conducting third phase trials in several partner countries including Argentina, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Pakistan and UAE.

Many of these partner countries have entered in to agreements with China for procurement and local production of Covid-19 vaccines. Pakistan has received over one million vaccines dosages from China so far and more shipments are being procured. It will a major development if China and Pakistan announce joint production of vaccine under CPEC.

While China has already donated Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) and hospital supplies to Pakistan, perhaps the time has come to scale up investments in the healthcare sector through the proposed “Health Silk Road” with CPEC being its pilot corridor. Like in the rest of the world, the current crisis has exposed serious shortcomings in Pakistan’s public healthcare capacities.

There is every possibility that when both China and Pakistan talk about infrastructure during their next Joint Coordination Committee (JCC) meeting, they will discuss hospitals and laboratories along with other ports and highways.

With China’s plans to develop its western regions, Pakistan’s skilled labor force could be a major advantage for both countries. For China, this will be an opportunity to step into a very large healthcare market which could expand to the rest of South and West Asia.

The health sector offers huge and sustainable opportunities with both social and commercial returns in most places.

According to the World Health Organization, Pakistan is ranked 66th amongst the high-burden-of-disease countries. Despite its heavy burden of communicable as well as non-communicable diseases, Pakistan’s expenditure on public health is only 0.91 percent of its Gross Domestic Product.

The country has one doctor for 957 people and one hospital bed for 1,580. The government run hospitals can only cater to 30 percent of population and the private healthcare facilities cover the rest.

China’s investments can help with the capacity of large hospitals, pharmaceutical production, research and distribution pharmacy chains.

There has been a discussion about trickling down benefits of CPEC investments on the livelihoods and wellbeing of people. Health sector initiatives will strengthen and widen the ownership of CPEC as a transformational initiative among general public in Pakistan.

Strategically, it will be a brilliant signal to the western world which has been constantly raising questions about debt trap, environmental impact and lack of transparency in CPEC.

Pakistan’s National Command Operation Centre (NCOC) leads on the country’s Covid-19 response and is chaired by the Planning Minister who is also leading on CPEC.

While NCOC is busy with dealing with the potential spread of the disease, the Ministry of Planning should start work on a major health sector upgradation plan with the help of private sector experts.

This plan should underpin the next meeting of JCC to determine post pandemic priorities for CPEC. A substantial improvement in health indicators of a young population will have a far-reaching impact on productivity enhancement and shared regional prosperity.

Haroon Sharif is currently a visiting fellow at Institute of Development Studies (IDS) at the University of Sussex, UK. He is also a Senior Advisor to the UN on Finance for Development. He remained Pakistan’s Minister of State for Investment in 2018-19 and led the Industrial Cooperation partnership under CPEC.=DNA