In collaboration with Anam Jalil Sheik
The upper middle class and elite of Pakistan lounge in appropriately furnished homes with full fridges and a large bag of chips next to them while they worriedly watch the news about increasing cases of COVID-19. Amongst these people are those who have a fixed salary and are somewhat relieved that they are getting two weeks off without doing any work, those who work from home, and those who have enough money to last them a few generations and aren’t really concerned about not being able to step outdoors for a few days. Most of these people are using their free time to catch up on their favorite shows, to message crushes and potential future partners and to strengthen their dating/flirting game.
On the other side of this picture are the poor of Pakistan: the vast majority consisting of daily wage workers, foot peddlers, people who offer small services on the spot, and for that matter, even beggars. Quarantine is a much bigger concept for them and probably one that they fail to understand because they are always on the edge of survival anyway.
According to 2015 statistics, approximately 24.3% of the country lives in poverty and 3.9% earn less than $1.90 a day. While most of the 24.3% will not have the funds to bear a 14-day lockdown where they can’t salvage their daily bread and butter, the 3.9% below the poverty line probably are not even mildly concerned about COVID-19—what they are concerned about is hunger. They will definitely not be able to bear the brunt of no interaction for 14-days as it may very well mean they are unable to earn or find their means for survival.
Accordingly, Prime Minister Imran Khan has been reluctant to announce a two-week lockdown although criticism of his lack of action was intense. His main concern was that a developing country such as Pakistan could not survive a 14-day lockdown without providing income for the poor- income that cannot come out of the current budget. With the pangs of hunger for the poor coming on strong, medium and small businesses are also likely to suffer immensely without their regular influx of customers and large businesses will also feel the toll. The economy is likely to begin a downward trend soon. A trend that Prime Minister Khan said would last much longer than Corona would.
However, in order to help people fight the pandemic, individual provincial governments have announced a 14-day lockdown and have urged everyone to remain indoors except for emergency purposes. The lockdown has been enforced in Sindh but is a bit more lenient in Punjab- though all official and private workplaces/institutions are closed. It is difficult to enforce a health-concerned lockdown in a country that is fighting poverty and has a literacy rate of about 62%, while the remainder have little to no education.
One of the positive aspects of the population is that people are coming out to help those in quarantine who cannot earn during the lockdown and may be suffering from hunger and other difficult situations. While the government is trying to put a food forward, the masses are being overly generous in trying to help others mitigate the losses, while some have hoarded essential items in order to charge a higher price for items that are not easily available. There is a reason they say, “goodness is chosen, and not all choose it” and whether good or evil, everyone is playing their part.
While individuals are filling their role, this is what governments can do.
This is comprehensive poverty alleviation and social safety net program that has funds worth Rs.80 billion. The program covers the employment, financial assistance, and the youth entrepreneurship scheme. This program can provide the stimulus to cater to the people in dire need of finances. Expanding its scope, for the time being, funds can be provided to the employees of SMEs and other daily wage earners as well.
This is another poverty alleviation organization that provides financial assistance to low-income groups. Its scope can be expanded in the current scenario to bring more people under its umbrella including those affected by COVID-19 and the lockdown.
Additionally, government institutions should go out of their to facilitate the daily wagers and the low-income groups in this health emergency. The Ministry of Maritime Affairs has already announced that there will be no pay cuts for the daily wagers after allowing most of its staff to work from home.
Other public sector organizations can follow suit.
Netflix has announced a package worth $100 million for hundreds of thousands of employees who are out of work in the wake of the pandemic. According to the company, most of this fund will now be utilized in support of the ‘hardest-hit workers’ in Netflix’s productions across the globe. The company has also pledged two-week pay for the cast and crew on current productions.
Corporate giants in Pakistan can also take a leaf out of Netflix’s book. The government should obligate larger corporations to allow the employees to work from home with full pay.
The government can engage banks and micro-finance institutions to provide relief to small businesses. Several countries have offered state guarantees to banks for relieving or deferring the obligations of small businesses. Pakistan can attempt to do that too.
There are several challenges that a developing country such as Pakistan can face though while attempting to correct the situation. The majority of the businesses in the country are not registered. Similarly, many citizens (especially the vulnerable ones) are not registered. That means the state does not contain a complete record of the targeted income group.
There is a high risk that many families (as well as undocumented small businesses) will not be able to receive assistance, be it in the form of finances or deferrals.
The answer to this would be a nationwide registration drive but this will require a person to come to government offices. Surely, this will violate quarantine protocols. However, the use of technology, like using the available data acquired through SIM registration, can prove to be helpful in this regard although it may not provide a full-fledged solution.
It is expected that the government will find a viable solution and that the people of Pakistan will be able to handle quarantine more appropriately to be able to beat the pandemic sooner—in this side of the word, at least.
We have been taking routine life for granted, and now, we realize how beautiful normal days were. The question now is, how soon can things return to normal?