The pandemic cost

March 26, 2020


I.A. Rehman
I.A. Rehman

THE coronavirus pandemic is going to cost Pakistan much more than the figures being mentioned by various authorities. A fairly large relief package has been announced, but reaching out to the needy will be quite a problem.

Educational institutions are unlikely to open soon. A serious effort is needed to ensure that the largest number possible of children continue their studies at home. The Higher Education Commission announced a few days ago that they had developed online courses for all classes. It is necessary to derive maximum benefit from the HEC’s admirable initiative.

The cancellation of O/A level examinations by CAIE means the students will lose a year and that will adversely affect their academic and post-academic careers. A conscious effort is needed to ensure that the disruption of academic discipline is reduced to the minimum possible.

The cost of disruption of the transport sector will be quite heavy. The suspension of air and rail traffic will increase the losses of all airlines and the railways. The burden of the PIA bailout will become unbearable. How will the employees of airlines and railways and those who help travellers at airports, railway stations and bus stands be paid for lay-off days? While looking at this sector the loss of income of the large number of rickshaw drivers, tonga-wallahs, mini-carriers, donkey carts etc will have to be covered by the state.

Almost the entire workforce in the private sector will be rendered idle for indefinite periods. The plight of the daily wagers pointed out by civil society has been acknowledged by the government, but helping the scattered workers will not be easy.

Comprehensive studies are needed on the impact of the epidemic on work, employment and incomes.

Perhaps a bigger problem than daily wagers’ is that of self-employed persons — chhabri-wallahs, street vendors, food cart operators et al. Most of them survive on day-to-day earnings. Should they not be helped with credit without interest? Attention must also be paid to the problems likely to be faced by regular employees in the corporate sector, teachers and other staff at private educational institutions, and a host of private enterprises. How will employers be persuaded to treat their periods of idleness as paid holidays? The government may be required to draw up a relief package for employees in these categories, and perhaps appropriate legislation will also be necessary,

The restrictions on the mobility of the well-to-do will affect many businesses. Restaurants and eateries will suffer almost a total loss of income, the fall in demand for fuel for all categories of motorised vehicles will reduce petrol pumps’ earnings, the income of barbers and washermen/laundries will decline and all of them could try to retrench their staff. A law will have to be made to ban the sacking and denial of wages to employees.

It seems there is a need to create special cells in the finance or economic affairs division of the federal government and the relevant departments of the provincial governments to undertake comprehensive studies of the impact of the epidemic on the work, employment and incomes of the people, especially the more vulnerable among them, and devise means of preventing people from dying of hunger, want and despair. That this should be deferred till the threat from coronavirus is over is not a legitimate argument. Only a few members of the establishment are talking to the people on TV and the rest of the employees of the federal and provincial governments apparently have little to do. They can be mobilised to plan for tasks that will be essential when the pandemic threat recedes.

The question of the cost of testing people for infection and their stay in isolation wards at private hospitals also needs to be addressed. Efforts should be made to ensure free treatment for all patients.

In this regard, the State Bank’s decision to offer hospitals credit for buying equipment to fight the coronavirus epidemic ought to be reviewed as hospitals could be tempted to pass on the burden of interest to patients. The state of emergency demands that credit to hospitals for the treatment of the epidemic’s patients should be interest-free. Further, with a view to saving hospitals the trouble of individually searching for suppliers of the required goods the federal government may set up a public-private procurement cell for the import in bulk of whatever is needed by hospitals in both the public and private sectors and distribute the same at cost price.

The leaders in the fight against the epidemic are the brave doctors, their assistants, nurses and support staff. The decision to increase their wages by a handsome margin, though belated, can only be welcomed. Care should be taken to ensure that the benefit of the pay raise is available to each and every member of the team attending patients and that the low-paid staffers in particular are not ignored. At the same time, any complaint of non-supply of safety equipment to doctors must be most expeditiously removed. Indeed, no medical officer should be made to ask for such equipment; it must be provided without asking.

A cost that might not cause anxiety to the prime minister and his government will be the grave economic crisis of newspapers that are already on the official hit list. The economic slowdown will further curtail their advertisement revenue and reduce the chances of their survival. More journalists are likely to lose their jobs and those who do not could face longer delays in the payment of their wages, even after heavy cuts. If this version of the situation is not accepted as correct, the government can correct the situation by releasing a reasonable part of the money it owes the newspapers.

One redeeming feature of the national trial is the training citizens are receiving, apart from proper attention to personal cleanliness and hygiene, in online banking and shopping. Further, a realisation is growing that had the state paid due attention to compulsory health insurance and extension of social security to the widest possible section of the population, the fight against the epidemic could have been somewhat easier. The provision of these two facilities must be top priorities on the national agenda once the fight against the pandemic has been won.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2020