TARIQ WARDAK

ISLAMABAD: The Awami Workers Party has called on the government of Pakistan to take immediate and urgent steps to respond to the health emergency triggered by the exponential spread of the COVID-19 virus across the country.

All over the world, governments have come to the realization that the current crisis is an unprecedented challenge and demands state intervention, unlike anything that has been seen in the recent history of the world. Those governments that have not realized the urgency of the situation are now facing the prospect of human catastrophe with potentially devastating effects for the very survival of organized society at large. Our neighbor Iran is the most obvious example in this regard.

While the government must ensure that the spread of the virus is arrested by restricting everyday social interactions in any public setting – including workplaces, bazaars, institutions of religious worship and places of leisure – this must be accompanied by a massive mobilization of public resources to cushion the impact of working people’s withdrawal from everyday livelihood activities.

Over the past few days, the world’s richest countries, including France and the UK – with the US likely to follow suite – have announced massive state support to employers and individuals citizens to brace for the downturn in economic activity. The institution of what is known as a universal basic income (UBI) – a guaranteed income for all adult citizens, irrespective of whether they are gainfully employed – is now not just essential to address what are likely to be extreme, long-term fallouts of the COVID-19 pandemic. The British govt, for instance, yesterday announced that it would be covering 80% of all salaries of workers in any and all occupations across the United Kingdom.

In comparison to the richest countries in the world, Pakistan’s health infrastructure and its social safety net are ill-equipped to cope with a massive outbreak of the virus. This applies particularly to the densely populated informal settlements (katchi abadis) that house millions of working poor in urban centres. It is these residents of katchi abadis, alongwith others, that also work in what is known as the ‘informal sector’, often as daily wagers. This segment of Pakistan’s population is now at risk of being the worst affected by the spread of the most contagious virus humanity has seen in a century and this eventuality can only be avoided if the government announces an immediate UBI that is the only way of ensuring that the working poor DO NOT go out into the public realm to meet their daily livelihoods.

COVID-19 is a once-in-a-generation event, and must be met with once-in-a-generation emergency measures. Pakistan has an experience of targeted cash transfers to the poor in the form of what was previously known as the Benazir Income Support Programe (BISP), which has since been incorporated into the PTI government’s recently formed Ehsaas programme. The BISP experience confirmed that targeted cash transfers DO WORK in offsetting the worst effects of poverty. The extension of the Ehsaas programme across the country at this critical time can be the difference between the uncontrolled spread of COVID-19 and an effective lockdown based on immediate economic redistribution that can provide the most vulnerable Pakistanis a cushion from complete devastation. Pakistan has the resources to meet this crisis, but we must demonstrate the political will to divert them from unproductive sectors to those who need them most.

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