FeaturedNationalVOLUME 15 ISSUE # 17

Pakistan’s lockdown dilemma

Pakistan has enforced only a partial lockdown over the coronavirus pandemic in major cities to save its workforce from starvation but still daily wagers and low-income groups have started bearing the brunt. Pakistan fears a sharp rise in cases if the present situation continues for few months. If stricter restrictions are enforced, the suffering of the vulnerable groups will worsen, though the pandemic would be effectively controlled.

Pakistan faced a dilemma when the first Covid-19 case was reported on February 26. As Prime Minister Imran Khan pointed out, he would have enforced a complete lockdown, like the US and Italy, if Pakistan’s economy was strong enough to save weaker segments of society from its harmful effects. In contrast, Pakistan had to make a difficult decision to create an intricate balance amidst the lockdown and stop its poor from starving to death. It was clear the government could not confine 220 million people to their homes through a complete lockdown.

However, the partial lockdown has too made the lives of the poor miserable. People, who have to work daily to provide for their families, are the most hit. Most of them are also ill. They have to earn daily to buy medicines for themselves. The government and philanthropists can provide rations to them but it is difficult for them to arrange for their medication. A large number of labourers can be seen sitting along footpaths in all major cities waiting for their potential employers. People, who worked at construction sites, factories, houses or painted houses, have lost their livelihoods. Rickshaw drivers, mechanics, salesmen and people working in many other informal sectors are also without work. Most of them live on handouts now. Some of them say they and their families had to spend early days of lockdown without eating. They live on ration, provided by philanthropists, while the government is still in the process of fine-tuning its policy.

In a bid to offset the impact of the lockdown, the government has granted the construction sector the status of an industry and announced incentives for investors and businessmen. As all industries are connected to construction, the government aimed to generate jobs for daily wage workers. Furthermore, the government has allocated Rs200 billion to provide relief to people who have lost jobs or are earning less due to the lockdown.

On the other hand, the government expects the worst if the lockdown continues. Recently, the federal health ministry informed the Supreme Court that coronavirus infections in Pakistan may rise to 50,000 by April 25 – a projection based on the pandemic’s trends in other countries. In a report submitted to the court, the government feared the tally of coronavirus infection may top 50,000 by April 25. Some 2,392 of the infected might be in a critical condition; 7,024 in a severe condition and 41,482 facing mild infection. It said the mild cases required care at home and at isolation centres. In severe cases, hospitalization is required and intensive care is mandatory for treating critical cases. However, the report noted the projections might change as they were based on trends in other countries. After 35 days, the number of confirmed cases in Pakistan was very low as compared to European countries and Iran.

The lockdown has also provided an ideal environment to beggars to invade big cities. Hundreds of them are seen on every road and street. They have made it difficult for the needy to receive help from those who donate or want to help the deserving. Thousands of beggars, including men, women and children, receive ration bags from philanthropists and welfare organisations and sell them to shops to earn money. Few videos of them have also emerged, in which they are seen robbing people who are distributing ration among them. In a video recently recorded by a shopkeeper in Karachi, a beggar can be seen asking for cash and other luxury items in return for flour, pulses, sugar and rice he had collected as donations by different philanthropists and welfare organisations. The government should take action against beggars so that relief could be provided to the deserving.

The federal government has started disbursing cash assistance of Rs12,000 per family under its special package to support the people badly hit by the lockdown. Under the scheme, Rs144 billion is to be distributed among 12 million families across the country. As per the PM’s announcement, every poor family will get Rs12,000 financial help for a month, which translates into only Rs400 per day per family and if a normal family consists of six persons, it means every family member will get Rs66.66 a day. Still the step will help mitigate the suffering of the vulnerable segments to a certain extent. However, there are reports that members of the beggar mafia have got themselves registered with the scheme in huge numbers. The government needs to devise a foolproof distribution mechanism to make sure that the taxpayer money doesn’t land into the pockets of the mafia.

The crisis has exposed our system and inability to count our workforce and help them in the testing time. Shutting down a country like us for longer periods would be difficult, given the poverty levels prevalent across the country. There is a big question that from where the government will get money to handle the situation in case of an extension in the prevailing lockdown. It is important for the government to identify the hotspots during the lockdown and reopen the remaining segments of the economy while finding ways to work within the pandemic.