THE largest distribution of direct cash assistance to the poor and unemployed began on Thursday as 4m people out of a total of 12m eligible recipients received the go-ahead to report to the nearest distribution point and collect Rs12, 000. As the distribution gathers pace, it is hoped that it will play a significant role in helping those who have been most badly hit by the ongoing lockdowns. There is no doubt that such an effort was needed urgently and the federal government should be commended for the speed with which they have made it operational. Perhaps it should also be borne in mind that this is the first such cash assistance being distributed through the Ehsaas channel, with more likely to become necessary next month, and perhaps again the month after that. A few important concerns continue to linger, though. First is the paucity of distribution points. Across the country, 17,000 points have been set up using the networks of two banks. This is far too small a number for an exercise of this scale. If done properly, the number should be more than 10 times this much. One result of this was seen in the massive crowds that formed outside the distribution points. Inside the premises, where the distribution was being carried out, it seemed that many places properly enforced the social-distancing protocols, but the entire effort appeared to be futile when people were forced to congregate in large crowds crammed tightly together outside the premises, as they waited for their turn to be let in. The purpose of cash assistance for the poor is defeated — in fact, reversed — if the beneficiaries are exposed to the hazards of contagion in the course of collection.
The government should urgently reverse its earlier decision to shut out the telecom companies from the disbursement of these funds, since mobile operators can multiply the number of distribution points manifold. They may charge a fee for their service, but banks make money by simply holding Ehsaas funds for a few days — and that money is made from the government’s account, in any case, since it is the government that the banks are lending primarily to these days. The second important concern is targeting. It is clear that the initial list of eligible beneficiaries has been drawn up in a terrible hurry, but there is still time in which to tighten the criteria.
Trump vs WHO
THE American president is known to tweet first and ask questions later. However, in such unprecedented global circumstances, world leaders have a responsibility, more so than before, to issue carefully vetted statements, especially when discussing matters related to Covid-19. Earlier this week, Donald Trump launched a damaging critique of the World Health Organisation, accusing the UN-affiliated body of going soft on China, and threatening to cut American funding for WHO. While there have been others who have also criticised WHO’s response to the coronavirus crisis, saying that the global health body took too long to declare Covid-19 a pandemic, the fact is that this is not the time for censure; informed critiques of what should and should not have been done can wait until the crisis starts to subside. However, Mr Trump has never been one for subtle diplomacy. Moreover, his own response to the infection in the US has been criticised by American governors and mayors. The US president himself had early on downplayed the risks of the virus, preferring to keep the wheels of the American economy going. It is only after infection and deaths spiked in the US over the past few days that he changed tack.
Bashing multilateral organisations has been a favourite pastime of the US leader. In the past, he has heaped abuse on bodies such as the International Criminal Court and UN rights outfits, all the while upholding the principle of American exceptionalism. However, it is hoped he does not follow through on his threat to cut WHO’s funds. Regardless of any errors of judgement during the pandemic, the health body has worked tirelessly, especially where developing countries are concerned, to put out the message that a global response is the only way to eliminate Covid-19. That response can best be marshalled by an outfit like WHO. Multilateralism may be far from perfect, but when a global health crisis challenges humanity, there may not be too many other options.
REPORTS of the spread of the coronavirus in a katchi abadi in Karachi have raised the alarm for provincial authorities — and for good reason. In a video message, Sindh Chief Minister Murad Ali Shah said his fear about the spread of Covid-19 in shanty towns has become a reality, as a family of seven living in a slum area had been infected. Flouting social distancing guidelines, the head of the family had gone out of his home and caught the infection, which he transmitted to his family members, including his one-year-old son and six-year-old daughter. In the same message, Mr Shah said the lockdown, which is in effect in the province till April 14, would be lifted in phases and that new SOPs to limit the coronavirus’s spread would be announced for each sector. As he made this announcement, Pakistan’s total confirmed Covid-19 cases had crossed 4,600 with almost 70 deaths. According to projections, the figure for confirmed cases will likely be in the tens of thousands by the end of the month.
The development is a major cause for concern, and the government’s fears are not without reason. The mere idea of a fast-spreading virus penetrating densely populated slum dwellings is a nightmare for authorities already faced with the mammoth challenge of containing this virus. Transmission in these localities would occur rapidly, bringing death and more misery for a segment of the population already lacking basic social amenities. Furthermore, the extent of slum dwellers’ ‘underlying medical conditions’ — a characteristic which the virus preys upon, often with fatal results — would be unknown to the authorities, compounding the healthcare challenge. Given these realities, and the limited capacity for testing and health services, all provincial governments must extend the lockdown for at least two weeks to assess the situation. From China to Italy, every medical expert has attested that a lockdown is the only way to curb the spread of this contagion. No doubt, such measures come with economic challenges, but by now, the authorities are well aware of those obstacles and should be in a better position to take the appropriate measures to provide some sort of relief while the majority is asked to remain home.
This approach towards a lockdown must be adopted by each province and reflected unanimously in the messaging of both the central and provincial governments. Unfortunately, the pandemic period in Pakistan is witnessing the discord and bickering that is so characteristic of our politics. The government must understand that now more than ever is the time to hold back grudges and develop a working relationship with the provinces. Disharmony, a lack of engagement and walkouts during meetings will only hurt the morale of healthcare workers and citizens who are grappling to adjust to a new world. Public officials ought to rise above petty politics and confront this unprecedented health and economic crises with solidarity in their ranks.