The government must be congratulated for successfully rolling out the Rs144 billion Ehsaas Emergency Relief Program and beginning the process of providing 12 million poor families Rs12,000 each to cover a period of four months. It is precisely such steps
The government must be congratulated for successfully rolling out the Rs144 billion Ehsaas Emergency Relief Program and beginning the process of providing 12 million poor families Rs12,000 each to cover a period of four months. It is precisely such steps that will make the difference between victory and defeat in the war against the coronavirus. Countries like Pakistan - which face the deadly mix of a weak economy, large population and deepening poverty - just cannot afford to shut down for too long without protecting the lowest income groups. The lockdown has already caused severe problems for daily wagers, many of whom are struggling to provide food for their families. And it would lose all meaning if people begin to die of hunger and starvation, which is always a very real possibility in such circumstances. Soon enough, there would be protests and social unrest, spreading the virus even further.
So, the Ehsaas programme shows that the government's thinking is right. This is a text book case of optimal utilisation of very limited resources and the government has decided to protect the food chain from the bottom up. But this effort is not going to succeed unless people, especially those it is directly meant to benefit, also play their part. So far the distribution effort has been quite successful, but it has also encountered some problems that are being looked into. There were cases of some people not receiving the full Rs12,000, which disturbed beneficiaries in some areas. Apparently, in a few places third parties were engaged, instead of banks, which charged Rs500 for every disbursement. There were also a few instances of officials not giving some people the full amount, but the police was quick to spring into action and arrests have been duly made. But the biggest concern came from the long queues and overcrowding at disbursement centres. While there were some places where things were managed as well as possible, ensuring social distancing and proper sanitisation, things just got completely out of control in other areas.
People simply refused to follow orders and stand a few feet apart. There was far too much mingling and pushing in far too many places, in complete disregard of all safety standards mandated by the government, which could make the entire exercise self-defeating and meaningless. There were even reports of stampedes. One, in Multan, even killed one elderly woman and caused about two dozen injuries, which then had to be attended to by emergency medical staff. In this way, just because of people's refusal to comply with simple and extremely important instructions, what was supposed to be a giant relief effort for the most needy may well have become the catalyst of spreading the coronavirus far and wide. Women, many of whom could be seen carrying their children, did not seem to care as officials cried themselves hoarse trying to get them to stand apart.
Opposition parties, as well as much of popular media, have been quick to blame the government for mishandling the whole thing, which is justified to an extent. Yet, no matter how much better the government could have handled the disbursement so far, it was essentially up to the people themselves to obey important orders and facilitate the process, especially since it was meant for them. Nobody, rich or poor, needs any reminding about how quickly this virus spreads. And it's not as if people only place themselves in danger by flouting the rules, rather they can trigger a chain reaction where one infection can ultimately harm thousands of people. Therefore, all those people eager for the Rs12,000 handout not only endangered themselves and their families by not practising proper social distancing, but also all the staff and security officials that came there to help them.
Still it is the government's responsibility at the end of the day to guarantee that everything is handled in a proper manner. And Special Assistant to Prime Minister on Social Welfare Dr Sania Nishtar, who is supervising the Ehsaas cash distribution programme, was clearly wrong to believe earlier that the government had done enough to avoid overcrowding or clusters. A mechanism must be urgently developed, preferably with the help of local administrations, to ensure monitoring and proper execution of the disbursement process. Otherwise, a similar problem will present itself in the month of Ramazan. The government has given Rs2.5 billion as Ramazan package to the Utility Stores Corporation (USC) to subsidise 19 consumer items, which can be raised to Rs7 billion if required, but unless people are properly guided and social distancing in ensured, even steps meant to protect the people can end up harming them more and spreading the virus like wildfire.