In the morning, Khokhar Chowk in Lahore’s Johar Town is normally bustling with labourers looking for construction-related jobs. Not any longer. Last Friday, one could spot only a few of them as they huddled together to take shelter from the drizzle under the sunshade of a shoe shop that was closed five days ago after the Punjab government, struggling to stop the spread of Covid-19, ordered a lockdown in the province. The number of people infected with the coronavirus in the province had raced to around 500 by Saturday afternoon in a matter of a few days.

Every time a car or a motorcycle drove by them slowly, they rushed to it in the hope of getting some work, even at half the wages they normally charge for a day’s work. “I have not got work for many days now,” Mohammad Nazir, one of the labourers, told us as he asked for a few rupees to buy lunch. “Last few months had been very bad, even when there was no lockdown. But the situation has now become really bad. There is no work for us.”

Many labourers have already left for their villages because of the overall shutdown of the construction industry and other businesses in the wake of the lockdown, hoping to find some work back home as the wheat harvest in the province approaches. “Why stay back in the city when you can’t get work here any longer? We are still here because we have nowhere to go back to,” he said, pointing to the others in the group.

Fiscal needs of the health department to fight the pandemic over the next one year have been estimated at Rs28.8bn

The Punjab government projects a loss of 3 million temporary jobs in the province on account of the shutdowns. The majority of the workforce in Punjab is employed in the informal sector and a sizeable number of people working in the industrial sector comprise of daily wagers.

Though Mr Nazir and others know that they wouldn’t find any work, they gather at the Khokhar Chowk each morning to take their chances. “We are aware that the government wants us to stay at home; police are there to remind us of that order every day. But staying at home isn’t an option for us; we’ve to try our luck every day,” the 30-year-old man said, adding that he had a hungry family of four to support.

The incremental lockdown imposed by the provincial government and closure of non-essential businesses and industry has put thousands of temporary workers or daily wage-earners like Mr Nazir out of job with no hope of work or income until these restrictions are lifted.

That means tens of thousands of them will have nothing to feed their families for many days or will have live off charity. That explains Prime Minister Imran Khan’s opposition to the idea of a stricter shutdown of the economy to control the spread of the disease even if his party’s governments in Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa have already announced the lockdown.

The government — federal and provincial both — have promised to protect their jobs, put cash in their pocket and distribute ration among them but nothing practical had been done (till the filing of this report on Saturday afternoon) to help thousands of daily wage earners like Mr Nazir who need to work every day to feed their families.

Officials told this correspondent that the province had already released Rs11 billion so far to meet the requirements of the health department in the fight against the coronavirus. “Part of these funds is also given to the Punjab Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) to procure and distribute food among the affected segments of populations with the help of the district administration,” a senior provincial finance department official said.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, he said the government had also worked out a multidimensional Rs55bn package (the details of which were to be approved by the provincial cabinet before releasing to the media Saturday evening) to a) support the poor, daily-wage earners through ration distribution and cash transfer and b) revive and regenerate economic activity in the province as the lockdown was expected to be extended beyond the present two weeks. The package, he said, would be spread over several months.

A provincial Planning and Development Board official said the government had in principle approved frontloading of public works worth Rs100bn during the next fiscal year to revive the economy and protect growth. “Additionally, we have also approved a Rs30bn programme to fund young people under the self-employment programme for the youth,” he added.

Provincial finance minister Makhdum Hashim Jawan Bakht and provincial advisor Salman Shah did not respond to repeated calls and text messages for their comments. The officials, nevertheless, said a steering committee formed on March 17 had been working to ascertain the fiscal needs for the health departments in the short- to medium-term, assess the potential economic impact and prepare a bailout package for the affected businesses and chart out a social protection plan for those affected by the crisis. Now the plan is ready for implementation, they claimed.

According to the officials, the fiscal needs of the health department to fight the pandemic over the next one year had been assessed to be Rs28.8bn. Besides, the government estimates that it will require Rs36bn for cash distribution under its social protection plan and Rs16bn for providing food and procuring equipment through PDMA in addition to Rs2.2bn for compensating for the loss of life.

However, the officials admit that they will face a number of challenges in reaching out to the people like Mohammad Nazir to provide them food and put cash into their pockets.

Published in Dawn, The Business and Finance Weekly, March 30th, 2020