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EDITORIAL: The government must be credited for the success of the Ehsaas Cash Emergency Programme, which puts cash in the hands of the needy segments of society as they struggle with all the limitations brought about by the pandemic. Pakistan must count among a handful of countries with very limited fiscal space and a huge debt burden to roll out such an extensive programme for poor people. Governments all across the world have come up with ingenious relief packages for business to support employment figures, but there's been very little direct attention paid to the bottom of the food chain, therefore it is not surprising at all that the Ehsaas Programme is already winning international recognition. It was no mean achievement, really, that the government was not only able to give the economy a good $8 billion stimulus package just as it was shutting down, but also spared a good deal of money for income groups that were more likely to die of hunger than Covid-19 without any assistance. In the first round of the Ehsaas Programme, the government was able to distribute in excess of Rs 150 billion among millions of deserving people without, it can be said with a fair degree of certainty, any political, racial, religious or cultural bias. And now that the cabinet has launched the second phase, millions more suffering under the weight of high prices of essential items are already lining up and thanking their stars for this initiative. At a time when the economy is struggling to provide jobs to daily-wagers, such cash injections can keep a very large number of families from starving till things get a little better and some jobs are restored.

To be fair, the prime minister has been looking out for the poorest among us since the first debates about the official response to the coronavirus took place. And while, as everybody knows too well, that concern diluted the lockdown somewhat and invited a lot of criticism, it was only by keeping the economy partly open and putting money in the pockets of the most vulnerable people that the government was able to rule out the prospect of widespread social unrest and food riots. The PM must also be appreciated for raising this issue at the online ILO (International Labour Organisation) Global Summit on Covid-19 on Wednesday, where he urged the international community to formulate a combined strategy to protect the most helpless people across the world, especially labourers, from the worst impact of the pandemic. By sharing each other's experiences, countries can become more efficient about the way they protect their most compromised populations. And surely a lot of them can learn from Pakistan's Ehsaas Programme, which has successfully kept the bottom from falling off so far.

It is also very important to note that no matter how successful any country has been so far in the battle against the coronavirus, a much harder battle might well lie just ahead as signs of a second wave are increasing all the time. The UN (United Nations) is worried about it, the WHO (World Health Organisation) is warning about it, international financial markets that initially shrugged off pessimistic growth and jobs statistics are now beginning to price it in, and the OECD (Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development) fears that, should it come, it could wipe out about 80 million more jobs in developed countries alone; in addition to the many millions already gone. And if the outlook for strong economies is so bleak, weaker ones like Pakistan will have to wriggle extremely well to avoid the axe. Of course there's also the other related problem, as the PM rightly noted in his address to the ILO, that weaknesses in other economies cut our remittances down and hurt us that much more.

In such circumstances, the Ehsaas Programme is a godsend for the most marginalised. It has been built on the BISP (Benazir Income Support Programme) but it has also been expanded many times over. And it is not just the amount of money but also the swiftness with which it has been arranged and disbursed that is particularly impressive. That is why it serves the need of the hour rather nicely. The government must now make sure that it remains on track and reaches out as many poor families as possible till the economy turns around.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020