The hustle and bustle in the city, the sounds of those horns, those packed streets, that jammed traffic, the voices of people, the smell of the amazing cultural food being cooked, the ladies gossiping gathering at each others houses and the voices from the customers bargaining in those shops had all been missed since 21st March 2020. This was a month after the first case of coronavirus had been reported in Pakistan and the government announced a nationwide lockdown, ordering all public transport, markets, offices, shopping malls, restaurants, and public areas to be shut down.
From Wuhan, a small town in China, COVID-19 found its way across the globe and sadly Pakistan also became a victim. The number of cases worldwide had reached approximately 33, 000, the death toll raised to 2,756 and the WHO declared a state of emergency by calling the spread of the virus a world pandemic. A five-judge panel, headed by the chief justice at the Supreme Court Of Pakistan, ruled Monday that “millions of workers will be on the streets and the government may be faced with a human disaster and calamity of such a magnitude that to overcome it may become next to impossible.”
Pakistan is a country driven by daily wage workers and street entrepreneurs owning their own businesses such as restaurants, street food stalls, garments and clothing stores and public transport services like rickshaw, taxi and bus. The owner of a welfare organisation - Jafaria Disaster Management Cell, reported that even these safaed poshes* were forced to succumb to welfare asking for bags of rashan* to feed their dependents. Families that normally donated thousands of rupees throughout the holy month of Ramadan in charity were left counting their savings for their own survival in the upcoming months and elite businesses were forced to halt production and cut pays of their employees. Prime Minister, Imran Khan has explained that a total nationwide lockdown would have devastating economic consequences for the 25% of Pakistanis who live below the poverty line facing the greatest economical loss. He warned in a recent speech that an estimated 150 million individuals, including rickshaw drivers, street hawkers, taxi drivers, small shopkeepers, and daily wagers, could eventually face hunger if all of them are shut in their homes. What took over the country beyond the fear of contracting coronavirus, was the fear of death from starvation, poverty and not being able to feed families.
A great contribution in Pakistan is from the tireless effort of NGOs and companies voluntarily working to help the citizens. Welfare organisations including but not limited to Edhi Foundation, Saylani Welfare, JDC and thousand others stepped up to feed and fulfill other basic needs of those in financial distress. Several local brands such as Asim Jofa, The Sweet Tooth, started production of safety kits and protective clothing for frontline workers at costs as low as Rs.189 (~ $1) along with their business. Expats donated huge amounts to the hospitals and other COVID-19 response workers. Furthermore,the government announced a four-month-allowance of Rs. 12000 (~ $75) for low income individuals as an emergency fund. The Sindh government has allocated 2.7 billion to set up new hospitals. Sindh Chief Minister Syed Murad Ali Shah, presiding over a Covid-19 response meeting, directed the health department to make at least 500 monitors and 200 ventilators available in Sindh apart from completing 50-bed hospital in Gulistan-e-Jauhar and a 200-bed Infection Disease Control hospital in NIPA by June 2020. However, unfortunately a country that isn't financially very strong cannot realistically help the people in the long run. Thus, despite the opposition from doctors and the Sindh government the immense pressure from protests of The Traders Association and financial concern for the country led to the lifting of this lockdown on 8th May 2020. Prime Minister Imran Khan announced at a press briefing after the NCC meeting “we are lifting lockdown in phases from Saturday because people like rickshaw and taxi drivers and [those from] working class are in trouble…” He said the decision to lift the lockdown was made in consensus with the governments of four provinces and Azad Jammu and Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan.
With the celebration of Eid around the corner and after the freedom from the frustration of lockdown, malls and stores were flooded with people walking shoulder-to-shoulder, as employees’ failed to implement social distancing practices. The salesmen were warned to ensure SOPs were followed and as a consequence, had to choose between keeping their customers or waiving them off should they violate SOPs. With the decision of lifting the lockdown Pakistan reported nearly 1,300 cases of Covid-19 and 48 deaths within 24 hours.
Today, Pakistan’s lockdown has almost ended, nevertheless the government has issued orders to restrict large public gatherings (especially at malls and mosques). Pakistanis, especially the safaed poshes*, were faced with a tough choice, to die of starvation or to live bearing the fear of contracting with COVID-19. In the current situation, it is clear that we have chosen the latter.
*Safaed Posh : People who have small-scale, non-registered businesses that do not earn much yet refuse to receive charity funds from welfare organisations on any normal day because they believe they are other more deprived people that deserve these funds.
*Rashan : A bag given out as a form of charity to poor people which contains staple food items such as flour, oil, sugar, salt, vegetables, etc.