Buckling under pressure

The government was under immense pressure from various quarters to ease the lockdown

Prime Minister Imran Khan has announced a gradual lifting of the countrywide lockdown from the coming week. The announcement followed a high-level meeting in Islamabad on May 7 to review the impact of Covid-19 on the country’s already weak economy. The PM’s emphasis was mainly on providing benefits to small traders and daily wage workers suffering economic losses due to the preventive lockdown.

Since then, the provincial governments have allowed a conditional easing of the lockdown, asking traders to follow the standard operating procedures (SOPs) formulated by the authorities. The SOPs include wearing of masks, using hand sanitisers and keeping a safe distance to avoid the spread of the virus.

In Sindh and the Punjab, the businesses and shopping centres are now to open for general public from 9am to 5pm, four days a week. On Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays the businesses are to remain closed and the lockdown in place. The governments have warned that in case of violation of the SOPs, the relaxation may be reversed.

This seemingly abrupt decision to open markets amid growing cases of Covid-19 has worried medical practitioners, who have been demanding continuation of the lockdown for another couple of weeks.

On Wednesday (third day of lockdown relaxation), the government-released data of Covid-19 cases indicated the single largest daily jump in confirmed coronavirus cases with 2,255 new cases bringing the total number of infected people to 34,231 with a total of over 700 deaths.

Massive crowds and open flouting of the SOPs was witnessed at congested shopping centres in downtown Saddar area in Karachi. On Wednesday afternoon, the District South administration had to seal Zainab Market, the famous shopping centre known for selling garments, and Gul Plaza on MA Jinnah Road, where imported textiles and other items are sold.

In Lahore, the provincial government warned shopkeepers to follow the SOPs failing which easing of restrictions would be withdrawn.

On the first day of the relaxation (Monday), people were seen with children riding on bikes in Karachi while others were sitting very close to one another in rickshaws without any precaution, says Dr Sher Shah Sayed of the Pakistan Medical Association, Sindh.

A group of concerned citizens including professional doctors, civil society and women rights activists held a press conference at the Karachi Press Club on Tuesday and demanded that the government re-impose the lockdown. Earlier, doctors’ bodies in all four provinces had warned the government not to ease the lockdown as the virus spread had reached an alarming level in Pakistan. Even though the death rate is still low in Pakistan, the healthcare services in Pakistan are already scant and testing facilities are limited to major cities.

The government had been under immense pressure from various quarters, including the powerful business community, to ease the lockdown as shopping activity ahead of Eid ul Fitr would be affected. The gradual lifting of lockdown was an attempt to release that pressure. However, this poses grave risks to public health.

Workers have faced a big squeeze in their earnings as many industries have started letting go of their workers, most of whom were employed on short-notice contracts. These unemployed workers are desperately looking forward to the opening of industries. Some industries, especially factories producing export textiles, have started their operations.

In the last week of March, the federal government had announced an emergency relief cash grant to lockdown-affected poor in the country. The scheme under the PTI-government’s flagship Ehsaas programme provided an amount of Rs 12,000 to each registered citizen divided over three months. According to the Ehsaas programme website, the government has distributed an amount of Rs 91.611 billion among 7.512 million beneficiaries so far. An overwhelming majority of workers has thus remained deprived because they were unable to fulfill the stringent conditions attached to qualifying for the scheme.

According to the latest Labour Force Survey (2017-18), the total workforce of the country is more than 65.5 million. The beneficiaries of this special scheme are therefore only 11.5 per cent of the total workforce. The prime minister had earlier admitted that the data of informal or daily wage workers was not available which is why his government was not able to reach the entire workforce.

Workers’ bodies have demanded unemployment allowance under the universalisation of social security. Currently, 58 million workers out of 65.5 million are registered with the government's social security institutions, including Employees Old-Age Benefits Institution (EOBI), according to data compiled by an Islamabad-based research institute, the Centre for Labour Research.

Economic experts believe that the pandemic has hit Pakistan’s economy hard. The IMF has already predicted that the overall GDP growth rate by the end of the current fiscal year would be 1.5 per cent as against State Bank’s projection of around 3 per cent. However, some economists say the coronavirus pandemic has also provided a cushion to provide a substantial relief to the people.

Dr Shahid Hassan Siddiqui, chairman of the Research Institute for Islamic Banking and Finance, says that because of reduction in oil prices and stabilisation of currency rate, the balance of trade and current account deficit have eased out. The IMF and Asian Development Bank have provided Covid-19 economic package and it is expected that inflation would be further reduced and imports would come down during the coming months.

He says that to provide relief to the poor the government may print currency notes worth Rs 300 billion and distribute it among the poor. This should be in addition to the amount the government is distributing under the Ehsaas programme. Dr Siddiqui says that such distribution would generate economic activity and the overall economy may revive by September this year. 

The writer is a senior journalist currently working as a development communication professional in Karachi

Buckling under pressure