Population & the pandemic

11 Jul 2020

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The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.
The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

TODAY, Pakistan celebrates World Population Day along with the rest of the world. We will proudly commemorate our population of 220 million citizens. The prevalent view is that our fast-growing population, especially its large young workforce, equals gains for the economy, as developed nations face issues of shrinking working-age populations. Influential economists too do not frown at a rapidly expanding working population. They see this demographic group bringing additional earnings, injecting fuel into demand for consumer products and services; all good for a sagging economy.

This was the population view when the Covid-19 pandemic struck.

Some of us naively believed that the pandemic would provide a much-needed wake-up call. It would force Pakistanis out of their complacency. After all, thickly populated cities are the epicentres of the pandemic, demonstrating that too many persons crowded into too few households are more vulnerable. The extent of poverty became visible through the millions unable to put food on the table when deprived of daily wages. The lockdowns exposed the vulnerability of millions of migrants who barely eke out a living in the urban centres, the so-called bastions of growth. Instead of focusing on how the poor live on the margins, we promoted saving their livelihoods rather than saving their lives.

It is unacceptable to shift the blame for policy failures onto the people.

This flawed view promotes the idea that our citizens are at fault, irresponsible and even stupid. They do not observe social distancing or wear masks, and crowd into small markets. They do not comply with government instructions and irresponsibly rush out of their homes as soon as they get the weakest green light promoting a relaxation of lockdowns. This is the message received from top policymakers and even some opinion-makers in this country.

Perhaps even resuscitating the economy rests on the people, according to this view. Ergo, there is nothing more that the government can do in containing movements by imposing stricter lockdowns, because greater numbers will fall into poverty.

Whose fault is it, the state’s or the people’s? Why is a convenient untruth easily swallowed to absolve the state of responsibility? Instead, it places the onus on the people to fight unemployment, poverty and, now the virus itself. Wrapped in all this, we forget to grapple with some alarming features of our ailing economy.

What can be more alarming than announcing expected negative growth rates? Anyone who can understand maths knows that economic growth rates have to be more than two per cent to keep up with population growth. The growth rate of new entrants into the working-age group is even higher at 3pc. An economic growth rate of anything less than that spells large-scale unemployment. This should definitely be seen as the responsibility of the government.

We are also not coming to terms with how badly Pakistanis are faring where global competitiveness is concerned. We continue our trajectory of weak education, poor governance, and poor quality of labour and products. A large proportion of entrants into the labour force, the so-called youth dividend, is uneducated. The wimpy effort to skill our population is limited to a few good or half-baked schemes, certainly not enough to provide employment opportunities for the annual 2m to 3m new labour market entrants. This should concern both the heads of planning and development, and finance.

For decades, large-scale international migration to the Middle East and Europe has served as a major release valve for the economy through remittances. The pandemic has changed this. Borders already hard to permeate will close down because of high unemployment among local populations. Europe and the US are the more glaring examples. Let’s face it, Pakistanis are just not as skilled, educated or malleable as other nationalities from the region. Not only do we carry the shadow of terrorism, but we now also bring the added fear of Covid-19 infections.

Everyone complicit has to wake up to whose fault it is that we have a population growth rate of over 2pc. All our neighbouring Muslim countries have half those rates.

It is unacceptable to put the blame for policy failures on the people. We must break the narrative that the high population growth is a result of people behaving irrationally. It is not irrational that half the labour force is uneducated. It is because of lack of access to education and opportunities. Poor children are not being irresponsible when they are forced to beg on the streets.

We can still change course. Many countries with similar economies and polities have emerged with strong policies to take responsibility for the education and health needs of all their citizens. Vietnam, Sri Lanka and India’s state of Kerala have dealt with these and the pandemic in an exemplary, humane way. They have not suffered as much economically as a result. Instead, they have made gains by adopting policies of investing in their people. They invested in broad education bases and strong, free-of-cost primary and preventive healthcare systems. They have strong family planning programmes, have eliminated polio and malnutrition, and are able to compete internationally.

The state’s good should equal the people’s good, and vice versa. We can still change budgets, currently loaded with surpluses of state-centric priorities, and divert them to people-centric priorities. Particularly urgent is an adequate outlay for health in the time of Covid-19. And the state must own its responsibility to create opportunities for universal primary education, primary healthcare and employment for the working-age population.

On World Population Day, the state must prioritise family planning services as an essential part of health services. Let me assure you that Pakistanis will react responsibly, just like other Muslim brethren, with solid decisions about birth spacing and the number of children. Not making these fundamental choices is like waiting for the crash at the end of a very slippery slope.

The writer is country director, Population Council, Islamabad.

Published in Dawn, July 11th, 2020