Pakistan’s new ambassador to Argentina, Dr. Muhammad Khalid Ejaz, has been in Buenos Aires for two months. He’s looking forward to getting to know his new home properly – when he can get out of his hotel room.
Dr Ejaz, you see, has been holed up at the Intercontinental in the heart of the capital since Argentina entered its nationwide lockdown to tackle the spread of the novel Covid-19 coronavirus. His belongings, he told the Times, are still at the port waiting for him – though thankfully he has his wife (also a doctor) and three children to keep him company. The family arrived just days before the pandemic hit, making their introduction to Argentina a little more peculiar than most people’s.
Nonetheless, Dr Ejaz – a career diplomat of more than 20 years who also covers Chile, Peru, Ecuador, Uruguay, Paraguay from his new base in Buenos Aires – is a medical doctor by trade, a GP, and hence well placed to acknowledge the importance of adhering to public health and safety measures.
His gaze is also turned toward home. To date, Pakistan has recorded some 37,000 infections with 803 deaths recorded – higher figures than in Argentina, but impressive when one considers the difference in populations between the two nations (212 million to 45 million) and its close proximity to huge nations such as India and China.
The ambassador said his government had managed to contain the outbreak but that it was necessary to remain vigilant. “We have a wonderful medical system and we export doctors,” he told the Times.
Pakistan’s approach has been looser than Argentina’s, yet it seems for now to have been quite effective. Dr Ejaz agreed, but said “balance” had been key to the Pakistani authorities, given that those living in poverty and working in the black economy would face struggles to stay nourished otherwise. Sounds familiar.
ON THE AGENDA
There are, of course, other serious items on the agenda too. One, for example, is Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan's new call for a global initiative on debt relief. The PM, who has won the support of many nations and bodies (including Canada and the United Nations), says debt relief will be essential for the developing world in the face of the pending economic meltdown generated by the coronavirus pandemic. Nations simply won’t be able to make their commitments, Dr Ejaz, explained, given the challenges ahead. Again, sounds familiar.
With Pakistan, much media coverage focuses on its complex relationship with neighbouring India. Quizzed as to the potential of a new era in ties opening up on better terms in the post-pandemic world, the doctor expressed scepticism, citing “xenophobic” and “Islamophobic” sentiment from some in India who have alleged that Pakistan held responsibility for the coronavirus’ spread in the country.
Such allegations have been noted internationally too. On Thursday, the United States government expressed concern over the scapegoating of religious minorities in both India and Pakistan.
"In India, we've seen reports of unfortunate Covid-related rhetoric and harassment, particularly against the Muslim community, exacerbated by fake news reports – misinformation – being shared via social media," Sam Brownback, the US ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom, told reporters.
As for relations with Argentina, Pakistan does have a history of good ties with Buenos Aires, though Dr Ejaz admits there’s room for growth in terms of commerce – trade between the two countries totalled US$128 million last year, with US$92 million of that being exports from Argentina.
The majority of it is made up of agro-industrial products, though some less common items (such as polo horses) have also made the long trip east. Pakistan also has a new deep-sea port under construction, which could make an ideal stopping-point for ships en route to western China.
“There are a lot of opportunities for bilateral trade,” said the ambassador, emphasising that agricultural products weren’t the only route to growth, citing Pakistan’s services sector and IT workforce.
Despite the extended lockdown, the ambassador remains positive and says he’s looking forward to improving Pakistan’s bilateral ties with Argentina – once he gets out of the hotel room.
“My message for the people of Argentina is one of love and friendship, and to seize the new opportunities which have come – now, we are not distant, we are close.”