‘I’d rather die of coronavirus than of hunger’

Updated June 24, 2020

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CHILDREN of homeless people pictured with their possessions under a bridge in Nazimabad.—White Star
CHILDREN of homeless people pictured with their possessions under a bridge in Nazimabad.—White Star

KARACHI: Pakistan has a rough estimate of 1.2 million children on the street, a figure which is at least more than 10 years old. And since there has not been any recent census, in all probability their numbers may have increased.

Even four months into the coronavirus pandemic, Pakistan has been unable to decide what is the best way to control the spread of the virus. From the beginning, the government has struggled with implementation of basic standard operating procedures (SOPs) and how to get people to follow them. Quarantine has been a big issue as has lockdown. Markets have been closed down and then opened and then partially closed down.

In such a situation street children and child beggars stand no chance of getting any help. They continue to live and sleep on the streets or in katchi abadis around the country — exposed to all kinds of predators, dangers and disease, and now the coronavirus.

Their parents don’t have the time or resources to protect their children. As Arshid Feroz Khan, the managing director of Street Children Pakistan, said, “Unfortunately, no one cares about street children. Parents rather see their children work and contribute to the family, than study. One mother told me that her son earns more while working as a mechanic’s apprentice.”

He said that the parents of the children are not bothered by the virus. “I asked an old man who was going to work during the lockdown why he was out, and why did he have his young son with him. The man said, ‘I would rather die of a virus than of hunger.’ This is the reality we see in Pakistan.”

Mr Khan said that he could understand what these people faced; they were fighting for survival. They were not going to let a virus stop them. They wanted to send their children to work so that the family didn’t starve.

Asymptomatic carriers

Unfortunately, with no clear government policy covering them these children not only expose themselves, but are also a danger to others as they may not have symptoms but they may be asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

With no health facilities available to street children in normal times, the situation is worse in a pandemic.

And it doesn’t help that it was commonly believed that the virus didn’t affect children and young people. Maybe this led to the government forming a force comprising of young people to help it in its war against coronavirus.

However, according to a report by Harvard Medical School, “Children, including very young children, can develop Covid-19. Many of them have no symptoms. Those that do get sick tend to experience milder symptoms such as low-grade fever, fatigue, and cough. Some children have had severe complications, but this has been less common. Children with underlying health conditions may be at increased risk for severe illness.”

So the crisis may be bigger than we are aware of and the government needs to get serious, if it wants to curb the spread to the younger ones. Already the health sector is struggling with the load on its meagre facilities and resources, and with the main medical workers falling prey the scenario doesn’t look hopeful for children getting infected.

But the government is not even considering this. As Rana Asif Habib, president of the Initiative Human Development Foundation, said, “The street children and child beggars do not come under any policy of the government.”

Role of child protection body questioned

Mr Habib said, “The Child Protection Authority of Sindh should have been on the front line at this time. But it is conspicuously absent and you cannot even contact the child helpline as it is closed down.”

He is afraid of the lack of awareness about coronavirus and the necessary SOPs among the lower-income groups and the uneducated population. He is extremely concerned about the millions of children on the streets, who are constantly exposed in markets and other public places.

He added, “A large number of street children and child beggars go to the vegetable markets where thousands of people are visiting daily but no one follows SOPs. The children are constantly being exposed and they are roaming around freely. It is the duty of the market associations to ensure that SOPs are being followed, provide sanitizers, gloves and masks to the people coming to the market, including these street children.”

Commenting on the lack of awareness among the street children and child beggars, as well as the residents of the katchi abadis, Mr Habib said, “The majority of these people are not educated, they can’t read the SOPs that are given. The government needs to change the strategy to reach them. It should have an inclusive approach and be public friendly and not spread fear to these children.”

Mr Habib also spoke about the economy of the street children and said: “The economy of the street children has also collapsed with coronavirus. A majority of these children have also been ignored when the ration was being distributed as they have no proper documentation and ID cards, there is a need to devise another method to reach them.”

He suggested that since there are 108 major signals and 13 major markets in Karachi, the authority could probably focus on these and set up mobile units.

Published in Dawn, June 24th, 2020