Marginalised communities suffering the most amidst Covid-19 outbreak

Men (L) distribute food to people in need during a government-imposed nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 coronavirus, in Karachi on May 2, 2020. (Photo by Rizwan TABASSUM / AFP)

LAHORE: As the Covid-19 pandemic takes its toll on the world, it has posed a grueling question for countries like Pakistan, with limited healthcare facilities and a crippling economy. That question has, thus far, posed itself as a binary between ensuring nationwide lockdown and safeguarding daily wagers who form a significant chunk of the economy.

This has meant that lockdowns have been enforced in the country at varying times and levels. This has also resulted in what has appeared to be a contradiction between the words and actions of the government, most notably in the case of Prime Minister Imran Khan, who up till the enforcement of the lockdown was adamant that it won’t work, and even questioned its rationale afterwards.

Even in his address on Thursday, PM Khan warned that the country’s healthcare system would be significantly more burdened by the end of April. In the meantime, the decision to enforce lockdowns has been passed on to the provincial governments, with countrywide shutdown currently in place till April 14.

Sindh has the official lockdown in place since March 23. With Punjab, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Balochistan following suit, the next day. The lockdown took its financial toll on the daily wagers.

“I can’t sit home all day. The money that I get for my daily work is what I use to buy food. In the initial days of the lockdown I still went out looking for work. But now even if I do, even if the authorities allow me, no one is offering any work. We need help to survive,” said Shabbir, a labourer from Bhatta Chowk area.

The suffering of the labourers and daily wagers is something that PM Khan has repeatedly warned against. As a result he also introduced an incentive package for the nationwide construction industry to allow them to continue work so that employment opportunities are there for the labourers. The incentives include fixed tax, removal of withholding tax and subsidies. The construction work is to be allowed to resume from April 14.

However, by that time three weeks of lockdown would be completed. During this time, the poor have had to deal with hunger amidst shortage of work. Local authorities have been instructed to provide aid to some of those families, but discrepancies have crept in.

“Trucks came in our society to distribute food supplies in our area, but we weren’t given our share. They said only those living in their own house would get their share of supplies. We live here on rent and have had to rely on asking others for help to manage to get some food for our families,” revealed Shehnaz, who works as domestic help near Mohlanwal area, but has had to stay home during the lockdown.

Mismanagement of aid and food supplies has been reported from multiple areas. Many have called for a more systematic arrangement to safeguard the poor amid the Covid-19 lockdowns. The government hopes to have come up with the answer.

The federal government, under its Ehsaas Programme, has decided to distribute Rs12,000 stipend to 12 million families across the country. The distribution began on Thursday, and the government hopes to deliver the money to the families from 17,000 different points across the country.

While the intent behind the programme has been lauded, concerns remain regarding its implementation. Given that many families even in an urban centre like Lahore have already been complaining about not receiving their share owing to mismanagement, the initiative would be rendered fruitless if it is marred by similar problems.

While the marginalised in urban centres still suffer the most, experts warn that the rural areas would be hit even more. And with healthcare facilities even more limited in the rural regions, many urge the federal and provincial governments to cooperate better to ensure better delivery of basic goods to the neediest.

“The agriculture workers and rural economy need to be protected through effective preparedness at the union council level in order to stop the spread of Covid-19, and ensure that the food supply chain is protected. [In this regard], federal and provincial governments need to be on the same page,” said Sustainable Development Policy Institute Executive Director Abid Qaiyum Suleri.

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