Words for the poor

14 May 2020


The writer is a member of staff.
The writer is a member of staff.

SO apparently 2.2 per cent of the population dying from a highly contagious disease is an acceptable risk to take, but a 1.5pc contraction in total economic output is not. That is what the underlying message is behind the government’s decision to order a lifting of the strict social-distancing announced by the provincial governments around March 23.

Monday was the first working day after the new, far-reaching exemptions to the lockdowns were announced on Saturday, and what we saw were grievous sights of packed bazaars in virtually every city around the country. A feast for the virus, which one doctor from the frontlines desperately tried to warn people is dangerous — “it literally devours your lungs” he tweeted.

The current case fatality rate in Pakistan is 2.2pc, if you do straight arithmetic on the number of cases against the number of deaths. The finance ministry and the IMF have both said they expect the economy to contract by 1.5pc in the current fiscal year, where it had been growing by just under 3pc in the first three quarters of the fiscal year that ran from July to March. This means the impact of the lockdowns, which were expected to run from April to June when this estimate was drawn up, would not only negate whatever meagre growth there was in the economy, but actively turn the needle back into negative territory.

It is not the interests of the poor that animate this government but those of the rich.

But is this reason enough to throw caution to the winds and reopen the economy? If you’re looking at the money, then yes but if you’re looking at the lives then no. What exactly was the government looking at when they made this decision over the weekend? After all, their own data, and their own statements in that press talk where the announcement of the far-reaching exemptions was made, showed that the graph of the infections was still trending upward, sharply, and fatalities were continuing to rise.

For an answer on where the government is getting its guidance from in these times, recall that memorable photograph of Prime Minister Imran Khan accepting a donation cheque from Faisal Edhi. Take a closer look at the two other people in the room at the time, shown in the picture. One is a massive property developer in Lahore, and also a textile giant with massive interests in the spinning sector and one time served as chairman of the powerful All Pakistan Textile Millowners Association (APTMA), and the other is a scion of one of the country’s largest industrial families with massive textile interests in Faisalabad and Lahore.

Now listen to how Faisal Edhi himself describes the encounter in one of his television appearances after the picture came out. He says he entered, waited for six or seven minutes while the prime minister talked to the two industrialists in the room, then while leaving one of the two gentlemen told him “this is Faisal Edhi, Abdus Sattar Edhi sahib’s son” and then the prime minister stopped, and for half a minute, says Faisal in his interview, he got a chance to speak briefly with him in the door as he was leaving.

Now consider this. If somebody was genuinely concerned with how the poor and the daily wagers are faring through the lockdowns, there are not many people in the country better able to tell you than Faisal Edhi. After all, he and his organisation deal with them on a daily basis, including for death rituals and healthcare provision.

Anybody with even a remote concern for the poor, should they find themselves face to face with Faisal Edhi, would pepper him with at least a few questions. How are they faring? How many dead bodies are you receiving? How much do they understand the risks presented by the virus? What are good ways to target assistance to them? What can I do to help?

There was none of that. The prime minister took the cheque (prompting some to wonder why the prime minister of a country should be taking donations from a charity that itself runs on donations), lent a perfunctory ear to some logistical problems faced by the charity organisation whose money he was accepting for his own corona relief fund, and left. The Rs10 million donation to the relief fund was the price of the entry ticket for Faisal Edhi.

The only reason I’m using this example is because many people are familiar with it. Otherwise, it is not difficult to see that it is not the interests of the poor that animate this government, but those of the rich. By the time the meeting took place, around Rs45 billion had been released to the ‘export sectors’ under the prime minister’s Covid-19 package for exporters. In the previous three quarters, another Rs47bn was released for them under the Export Enhancement Package. A few days earlier, the cabinet had approved an amnesty scheme for property developers, disguised as a ‘construction package’, which the prime minister claimed was to help provide jobs for the poor affected by the lockdown, but in reality he had announced on Nov 11, 2019, that “construction is the government’s top priority” and this package had been in the works since then.

There is nothing unusual here. It is a deeply Pakistani trait for the country’s leadership to serve the poor with their words and the rich with their deeds. There is a long pedigree to this peculiar brand of two-facedness, of doling out goodies to the rich in the name of the poor.

This time, however, this gambit is being used to play with the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. The government has done an especially poor job of public messaging to awaken the populace to the dangers of the virus, how it transmits itself, what behaviours should be avoided and how social-distancing should be maintained. The result is people don’t take the danger very seriously. And now they lift the restrictions, in the name of the poor. God help us all.

The writer is a member of staff.



Published in Dawn, May 14th, 2020