Ijaz Ali’s day starts when everyone’s still asleep, even the birds in the trees. Getting up early in the morning, he only has time to wipe the dust from his bicycle and then he is out on the road, rushing to get to the newspaper stall at Chowk Yadgar in Peshawar to pick up a bundle of papers.
Then, at dawn, begins his paper round. Like clockwork, he is at the doors of subscribers in the Cantt area every day, tossing newspapers into the porches or lawns of still-dozing households, rushing from one house to another to make sure the broadsheets are served in time for breakfast.
Like the news cycle itself, Ali’s job never stops. Until recently, he hardly ever had time to stop and think about the future. But then came the Covid-19 pandemic and, as ‘normal life’ became uncertain, he couldn’t be sure about his job either.
“The pandemic brought with it the worst of days of my life,” says Ali. “During the lockdown ,when everyone stayed indoors, I still got up before the muezzin’s call for prayer to start my work routine. But the fear of the virus had totally changed people’s attitude towards newspapers. Like everything else, they were afraid they would get infected from newspapers.” These fears are purely speculative of course and there is no evidence to suggest that coronavirus can be contracted from touching newspapers.
Yet this paranoia has been renewed as the second wave of Covid-19 has hit Pakistan. Now again, just like in the peak weeks and months of the pandemic earlier in the year, Ali has to wear a face mask, sanitise his hands and put on gloves before cleaning his cycle and going to the stall where the newspapers are stacked for distribution.
“Each day, I would see the bundle of papers growing smaller in size. Each day, there would be lesser newspapers to distribute as people cancelled their orders,” says Ali. Seeing the number of subscribers diminish depressed and saddened him.
At a time when everyone across the globe wanted maximum and fast information, they switched from print to online news websites ,because it was considered safe and quick. Worried about his prospects, he would load the small bundle on his cycle to peddle away in the gloomy dusk on his route, the street dogs barking and chasing after him.
Even as people wanted more information in the middle of the pandemic, they fell prey to rumours and cut newspaper subscriptions. The hawkers were among the hardest hit
Since he had fewer papers to distribute, Ali would be home earlier during the lockdown. In cities like Peshawar, where people usually come from the suburbs seeking jobs, pursuing studies or on other business, they returned to their native towns and districts; offices and businesses closed down, reducing the demand for newspapers and adding to the crisis of the hawkers.
Circulation and distribution was a concern for the print news industry all over the world, of course. And back in the streets of Peshawar, it hit hard at a hawker like Ali.
“Before the lockdown, I would deliver eight copies each of two English dailies, 10 of an Urdu paper and 35 copies of another Urdu paper popular in Peshawar,” he says. “During the lockdown, the figures dropped to one each for the English papers, six for one Urdu daily and 20 for the popular Urdu publication.”
Ali normally earned 700 to 800 rupees per day which he considered enough to make ends meet. However, when the cases of the coronavirus peaked and hundreds of people were hospitalised, his daily wages fell drastically to 200 rupees.
“It was not enough to even feed my family, given the inflation,” he says. In fact, supporting his family became a major challenge during the lockdown and he was compelled to find an additional source of income. He started selling potato chips in his neighbourhood, albeit secretly, because of fear that the police would throw him in jail due to this violation of government orders.
The initiative failed. Within a few days he closed shop because the prices of potatoes and oil were too high and he was unable to make a profit. He had no choice but to live within his means, however meagre. The anxiety of paying electricity bills and house rent hung over his days like a black cloud.
“A kind of tragedy happened to us when the government imposed the lockdown without giving any thought to people like us,” he laments. “Clients usually pay us at the end of the month for the newspapers. When the lockdown was imposed, our money got stuck due to two reasons: people from other districts left for their villages in a hurry due to the fear of non-availability of transportation. Second, they stopped meeting people, and also told us not to visit them because they feared we may be carriers of coronavirus.”
Newspaper circulation in Peshawar has been badly hit by the virus for all major newspapers. For instance, the circulation of the popular Urdu daily that Ali hawked has halved, dropping from 24,000 to 12,000, according to Raza Khan, the president of the Peshawar Hawkers’ Association. He lamented the attitude of the newspaper organisations and the government. He said no attention was paid to them while they were on the verge of starvation, adding that the issue was taken up with the head of the Pakistan Hawkers’ Association and lists were presented to the government for financial help, but all in vain.
Khan says that, as per the directives of the All Pakistan Newspapers Society (APNS), the hawkers followed the standard operating procedures (SOPs). “The safe delivery of newspapers was ensured by the hawkers. Even as the behavior of the subscribers had totally changed towards them, we kept the dwindling circulation going by following the SOPs so strictly that none of our members got infected with Covid-19.”
Khan says the fear of the virus was such that people had started treating the hawkers as untouchables. “They either refused paying the bills or those who did would drop the money on ground for the hawker to pick up.”
It is hard to get reliable newspapers circulation figures from official departments but independent sources say they plunged in substantial numbers. Several causes are cited for this decline but, primarily, readers had shifted to social media and turned to television or the internet for information. Added to this trend was the high inflation before, and in the wake of, the pandemic.
“Why would anyone buy a newspaper when it [updated news] is accessible on the internet for free?” says a source in a newspaper’s circulation department who didn’t want to be named.
Like Ali, daily-wage earners across the country have faced tremendous economic challenges due to the pandemic. Even though the provincial labour acts ensure the welfare of workers, the toll the pandemic took on the day-wage labourers belies all such claims. In case of the newspaper hawkers in Peshawar, Parliamentary Secretary Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Shaukat Ali Yousafzai, of the ruling PTI, reveals that the hawkers were not registered with the labour department. “Their registration is in the pipeline, which is why they didn’t receive any help from the government,” he says, adding that, once registered, they would get their due rights.
Like Ali, a majority of the people associated with the print media have seen a tough year and faced challenges of survival due to the crisis sparked by the pandemic. “The situation is going from bad to worse, day by day,” says Khan of the Peshawar Hawkers’ Association. “About 25 newspapers stalls have already closed down since the virus spread.” Of the total registered hawkers in Peshawar (about 450), more than 40 quit during the lockdown. They have not come back to their jobs since.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 15th, 2020