Voices of the unheard: Living through the Karachi lockdown as a daily wager

Prism takes you inside the lives of those worst hit by lockdowns due to the pandemic in Pakistan's most vibrant city.
Published May 12, 2020

You fall in love with Karachi despite its many idiosyncrasies, its chaos, the clutter, the constant hustle-bustle of the traffic, the zigzag of motorbikes, the paan ki peek [tobacco spit] abundant on the roads, the buses that drive so erratically they make you wonder how the passengers ever make it home, the persistent honking that gives you headaches, the post monsoon flooding of gutters.

Karachi seduces you with the scent of delicious samosas on the roads, the busy markets where you can drive a hard bargain, the breezy nights after a scorching day, the constant energy and vibrancy, and most of all, its ability to welcome all, from corporate investors with their big dreams to the local sabzi walas [vegetable vendors] with theirs.

Karachi makes these people, and these people make Karachi. A multi-dimensional, pulsating city that generates about 25 per cent of Pakistan’s GDP which translates into billions of rupees in revenue for the entire country.

But during the Covid-19 lockdown, a different type of energy had settled over the streets of Karachi.

Commuters ride on a deserted road during a lockdown in Karachi in March. — AFP
Commuters ride on a deserted road during a lockdown in Karachi in March. — AFP

The roads were barren, with an occasional rickshaw wala aimlessly driving around, looking for a potential ride, motorcyclists no longer had the fun of zigzagging among various vehicles because hardly any remained on the road. The local sabzi walas [vegetable vendor] would be sitting beside their thailas [carts], hoping in vain that someone would come and buy vegetables from them so they could go home with some milk for their children. A lone donkey-cart loitered in the street, with the owner hoping to make some trade. The air was desolate, no delicious smells of street food tantalising the olfactory senses, the thaila walas [cart pullers] had all been sent packing.

While Karachi accommodates all, the persisting inequalities in access to resources, and wealth in general, are also very real. There were a few who sat in their comfortable homes, and welcomed the lockdown due to the pandemic as a break from their busy routines, a pause in their daily lives. Their pantries were well-stocked, and their homes large. They could sit in their rooms and practice safe social distancing, as recommended by health experts.

But there were many who did not have that kind of luxury. Who had to venture out of the house to earn a livelihood for their families, who remained dependent on someone buying fruits and vegetables from them on a daily basis, who still relied on selling their famous bun kebabs, who had only ever made a few rupees everyday by delivering goods to customers. Gardeners, plumbers and electricians who were otherwise needed for everyday chores but whose services were suddenly no longer required.

The economic concerns due to the lockdown in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic have been well heard and written extensively about. Economists have naturally predicted that mass unemployment may well be inevitable as companies face falling demand, and will eventually have no choice but to cull their workforce to remain afloat.

But the hardest hit are those who struggle to keep themselves from sinking financially and socially even in non-crisis situations. The lockdown in Pakistan had, and continues to, deprive daily wagers of their earnings, either rendering them jobless, or leading them to consume their paltry savings within a few days.

Akash H, a delivery boy from a reputed food delivery company in Karachi, the only son of a family with five other members, has been forced into taking an involuntary “break” from work that he neither asked for nor can afford. And he is infuriated, distraught even.

“I am living on whatever I had saved so far, but I don’t think I can do that anymore after this week…. maybe,” Akash says.

“Baaji [sister], it is already difficult for people like us [Hindu minority] to get a job in this country. It took me four months to find this job. I cannot afford to lose it. This is all I have right now.”

For Akash, a dramatic reduction in his daily earnings and diving into savings has meant that he had to “pick and choose from basic groceries to take home.” Should he buy Aatta [wheat] and vegetables for his family, or milk for his little sisters? This uncertainty had spiraled into mental distress. “Is God angry at us? Will this ever end? When will it end?”

A man walks on a deserted street in Karachi on April 18 amidst a govt mandated lockdown. All shops and markets were closed and people were not allowed outside their homes. — AFP
A man walks on a deserted street in Karachi on April 18 amidst a govt mandated lockdown. All shops and markets were closed and people were not allowed outside their homes. — AFP

These questions have been echoing across the country even as the government moves to ease curbs on lockdown restrictions. Will things magically go back to normal?

Perhaps the most alarming aspect of the coronavirus outbreak is that we are unable to predict its ending. And this raises an important question, will this cripple the thousands of daily wage workers who are being forced to live, what they have termed as “zabardasti ki bhook hartal [forceful hunger strike]?”

The lockdown led to organisations implementing policies that allowed people to work from home. However, people who earn their livelihood by offering valet and cleaning services to the cars parked outside offices, cleaners at houses had been severely affected since they were not being provided any work during this lockdown. Several of them have been laid off.

Twenty-eight-year-old house cleaner, Altaf Ghouri has also been one of the victims of the “unwanted vacations” which have been triggered by the lockdown.

“They told me not to come [to their houses] because I use public transport to come to work.”

While Altaf understood the concerns of the families whose houses he works at, he was deeply distressed when he found out that he was not going to be paid for the days he was not working.

“I have been working for them for years and this is how they have treated me. I have asked saab jee [boss] for salary because how else will I take care of my children and pay the bills? He ignored me. All of them did.”

The gaping inequalities between the rich and the poor come into sharp focus when Altaf narrates, “These rich people do not understand our pareshaanian [worries]. They are all working from home, you know. They can sit in their comfortable houses, work and still get paid, but where does that leave us?”

Altaf poignantly sums up the struggles of the abject and the poor: “Rich people will die of Corona. Us? We will die of hunger.”

The virus certainly knows no bounds, because while inevitably creating economic upheaval, it is likely to also affect an individual’s sense of worth.

For Asim, a bus conductor, the restriction on public transport has meant a complete loss of income for him. Even as the government moved to ease the lockdown on Monday, the ban on public transport remains in place.

General view of deserted roads in a business district during a strict lockdown in Karachi on March 23, 2020. — AFP
General view of deserted roads in a business district during a strict lockdown in Karachi on March 23, 2020. — AFP

His desperation to put food on the table for his family that includes his wife, twin daughters and elderly parents, forced him to get out of the house despite the lockdown, but to no avail.

“Yesterday, I ran out of money, so I could get less milk than what was required for my daughters. We [my wife and I] mixed water in it so that it was sufficient for the night.”

For Asim, the sole breadwinner of the family, this situation made him feel “less of a father, a bad father and embarrassed”.

“I cannot meet my wife’s eyes when I go back home empty-handed. I cannot go back home without groceries today.” So he stands in the scorching heat of April in Karachi, hoping he will get some “mehnat mazdoori [hard labor].”

“The situation was always bad, I had a tough job. But now? I feel like I am losing all hope.”

Labourers walk on a deserted street during a lockdown in Karachi. — AFP
Labourers walk on a deserted street during a lockdown in Karachi. — AFP

Asim’s plaguing worries, his sense of helplessness in not providing for his family is leading him into depression where he is so desperate that he says he has lost interest in his life.

“I don’t feel like living anymore. There is no solution to my problems.”

In Pakistani society, the inability of a man to provide for his family often leads to societal scorn.

According to Asim, “There are people in my [extended] family who insult me and spew hate towards me.” For men, who are tied into their social roles of providing for the family, such crises can lead them to question their sense of self-worth. “If someone asks me to clean the roads right now for money. I would not think twice. I just want to feed my daughters.”

With each passing day we see news reports telling us the number of virus cases in Pakistan, particularly Karachi, are rising. The death toll frightens many, but for those whose livelihoods have been disrupted due to this pandemic, contracting the coronavirus is the least of their problems.

“I am not afraid of corona. I am afraid of my family sleeping hungry tonight,” explains Altaf. The virus is invisible but the reality of an empty, rumbling belly and the sounds of hungry children crying stare at you right in your face.

Karachi has been known to provide jobs and livelihoods to unskilled labor that flow into the city migrating from various parts of the country. There is something for everyone. Those living on the streets are also able to find something to eat at the end of the day. Charitable people are often seen distributing food on a daily basis to the countless homeless thronging the streets of Karachi who for a variety of reasons, are unable to earn.

The grim reality that the pandemic has brought disruptions in the lives of the marginalised hits you with force when you realise that in the absence of “rich” people on the streets, those who “relied” on them for daily provisions are helpless.

Transgender people, often at the lowest rung of our society. Unable to secure employment, they usually beg on the streets to meet their daily needs. But begging in current circumstances is no longer an option.

Seema, a 27-year-old transgener was sitting alone under a flyover in Karachi, with her face covered by a dupatta.

“I don’t even have to wear a mask, you know. People have always maintained a distance from us long before this virus started. What difference does this social distancing make for us? We have been treated as a virus all our lives.”

“Kasam seh [I swear], my own family does not hug me, they tell me to get out of the house. Just because of what I am. Now regular people [like you] will know how it feels.

“But for you, it will be over in a couple of months. For us, this cycle will continue.”

Perhaps, Seema’s narrative, and the power that it yields is such that it forces us to acknowledge our deep-seated biases and prejudices, to force us to empathise with those who suffer much to our ignorance, on a constant basis.

For more than eight months, Humera, a 26-year-old woman had managed to survive in Karachi selling stationary items and working part time as a factory cleaner with her husband.

Every afternoon, Humera would finish her work at the factory and go straight to her “spot” on a busy road to sell stationary. Those passing by in cars, sometimes pedestrians even, would give her some money which would be sufficient to get one meal for the couple.

A view of a downtown market seen empty during restrictions in Karachi during strict lockdown last month. — AP
A view of a downtown market seen empty during restrictions in Karachi during strict lockdown last month. — AP

But when the lockdown began and the streets were emptied and the factories were shut, the couple found themselves without money to pay rent and buy food.

“For the last two weeks, my husband and I have been living on one meal a day. We have no money to pay the rent. I come here [on the street] with my stationary, but those who usually helped me are nowhere to be seen,” she said, her voice cracking up.

Humera and her husband wish to go back to their village to stay with their families but due to restrictions on local transport including buses, they are “stuck.”

The couple is critical of the government. Humera feels they were not given sufficient time to prepare for the lockdown. “We could have gone back home, you know,” she tries to explain. They believe the government did not consider the plight of those who work on daily wages, who are now left “Allah kay hawalay [to the mercy of God].”

Such narratives, the lived experiences of daily wage workers, their stories that form the fabric of our society painfully bring us to terms with the figures of unemployment, inflation and slowing economic growth that merely remain an abstract notion for many of us.

There is little doubt over the necessity of the lockdown but it is a calamity for poor people. There are hundreds of migrant laborers separated from their families in their hometown villages. Even an ease in some lockdown restriction does not let them go back to their hometows bevause public transport remains banned. Which, for them, means being stuck in this city of lights, where social distancing is an incredulous joke for many suffering its brunt.

It, however, should not take a pandemic for us to realise the plight of individuals who remain at the margins of our society. These people make Karachi what it is. It is the working class that forms the pillar of this city, that contributes to its hustle and bustle, and that breathes life into what is now a moribund existence.

The lived experiences of daily wagers and working class should not be disregarded because living through pandemics does not only create havoc in the public health system but it also reconfigures the society in unimaginable ways. Such experiences destroy the social fabric of society, as individuals undergo a trauma which is unprecedented and unknown, with little or no relief.

Header image artwork by Ghazal Shahid.

Authors’ notes:

  • The narratives of daily wagers were collected as part of a series for the social media page of the organization that the authors are affiliated with. However, not all of them have appeared on social media as yet.

  • Names have been changed to protect the privacy of those interviewed.