Reaching out

April 19, 2020

This is no time to be stingy

People wait to receive ration as part of relief efforts during the lockdown in Quetta.

We are in the middle of our fight against the spread of coronavirus. This has been, continues to be, and will be a difficult and costly fight. We have already lost more than 110 people to the virus. Over 6,000 coronavirus-positive patients are battling the virus in quarantines and hospitals. There is no estimate of how many more might actually be infected but have not been tested or have not had serious symptoms. Lockdowns of various hues have been implemented over the last month. Most businesses have grinded to a halt and millions of people have already lost their jobs and/or sources of income, while millions are fearing that in a month or two they might not have a business or a job to go to.

Distancing was and is important if we want to stop and/or slowdown the spread of this virus. This virus spreads through touch (shaking hands, hugging) and sneeze/cough of an infected person. It, therefore, spreads easily and quickly. The only way to slow it down is by creating distance between people. So, some form of lockdowns, for some time, were and are inevitable if we want to manage the spread as well as the pressure that it creates on health systems. But lockdowns mean shutting down places of work and businesses.

It is also obvious that we cannot ignore the income needs of people. Basic necessities need provision, lockdown or not. We have already been under a lockdown for a month – this might continue, partially at least, and for most of us, for a few more months. The poor, or those who were near the poverty line even before the lockdown, will definitely need financial assistance. This point has been made often enough even by the prime minister. The poor do not have savings. They rely on daily or weekly earnings for making their food and other purchases. But it is not only the poor who rely on income for making daily/weekly purchases, even the lower-middle and middle income groups rely on salaries or business incomes for their purchases. They also do not have enough savings to be able to live without steady incomes coming in. So, when businesses are shut down a lot of people need help.

Two main questions need to be answered in this area. I am assuming that the state has the willingness to help, and the resources, at least to a degree, for it. And I am also restricting myself to the short-term. The medium to long term solutions, when lockdowns are done with and we have to get businesses going again, will be tackled another time. First, how do we identify those who need help? Second, how do we deliver help to them? Both questions are not easy to answer given that time is of essence and we need to provide help as soon as possible.

It is clear that it is not just the daily wage earners and the poor who will need help. All people who do not have savings and rely on salaries or incomes from their jobs and businesses every month to make their needed purchases will need help as soon as they lose their jobs or their businesses are shut down. The problem here is that we do not have any good way of identifying all such people. Poverty survey done for the Benazir Income Support Programme (BISP)/Ehsaas programme might identify most of the very poor but it does not identify the working poor and the working non-poor who will need help when they lose their jobs and businesses. For this we need other data sources and since income based ones are not available, we need to find good proxies. For example, cell phone billing data, electricity/gas billing data, international travel data, NADRA/passport data, and other similar large data sources, pooled together and mined, might be able to generate better lists. These will, of course, not be complete and error free, but they will, at least, give us a quick and large enough baseline to work with. Allowing people to apply for help, if they have not been identified, can also make the lists better over time. At this point, when reaching people quickly is important, a mistake in targeting – and some people who do not strictly qualify for help getting it – is a better error to make than waiting longer to clean data and/or leaving deserving people out by being extra strict.

The government has, at the moment, gone with the BISP/Ehsaas and NADRA data for identification. This is not going to be enough. But it is a start. Ideally, they should be working on other data sets in parallel.

The second question is about getting help to people who are identified. Clearly, we will have to use multiple sources for this. Asking BISP/Ehsaas recipients to gather for distribution will work for some. For others we might have to use the postal/courier system, mobile/normal banking and/or cash delivery mechanisms, depending on what information we have on them and how we can connect to them.

The government has started with BISP/Ehsaas distributions and has reached 1 million odd recipients over the last few days. Since we expect the potential number of recipients to be around 10 million, almost 40 percent of families in Pakistan, this can just be termed a ‘good start’.

We are quickly moving towards opening up some sectors of the economy so that some jobs can come back or are not lost. It is not clear yet what the impact of the partial opening will be both on jobs and the economy as well as on the spread of the virus. One can expect changes in policy as things unfold. But whatever the situation, millions will need help in Pakistan. The main identifier for these millions is that they do not have savings. We do not have readymade ways of identifying such people. The government needs to make significant efforts in addressing the two issues mentioned: identification of the needy and getting funds to them. And the effort, on both counts, should be more inclusive, even at the cost of errors of including some non-deserving, than exclusive. This is no time to be a perfectionist or to be stingy.

The same message has to go to people who are in a position to help others. Government efforts, however good they may be or might become, will need to be generously supplemented by private philanthropy to ensure sufficient coverage.

The writer is associate professor of economics and education at LUMS

Reaching out