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Social Protection (Or Lack Thereof) In Times Of Corona

Most people in Pakistan cannot afford the exuberant PKR 8,000 for a PCR test at a private facility. Corona has removed the thin veil of socio-economic class separation and what  is laying bare is the stark inequalities within society, write Fauzia Yazdani and Shirin Gul.

It is commendable that the PM continues to hold on to his compassion agenda as he opposed lockdown to save 25% of Pakistani- living below the line of poverty – from an economic shock. In the current situation, though, it is unavoidable. The more important part, therefore, is how to support the vulnerable during the lockdown.

While one can debate poverty statistics in Pakistan, the fact of the matter is that for long substantial number of Pakistanis have been allowed to fall through the cracks by not investing in an inclusive social protection system. They are without any safety nets. The level of socio-economic despair is such that a day without work is a day of hunger for them and their families.

For the record it’s not the pandemic but a systemic failure that has magnified and deepened the existential threat to the poor. COVID 19 is exposing these economic and social chasms in countries across the world. The pandemic has not only put a mirror to our society but pin pointed systemic failure that has made life-saving isolation look like a luxury meant only for the privileged. It is this failure that with-held the federal government in Pakistan to think over and over the tenability of a national lockdown at the risk of exposing citizens to a virus that as yet has no known cure.

It needs to be acknowledged that social media raised ‘humane issues’ that do not find space in regular electronic media; and in print it can only land at page 8 in a small 2 inch news item, if at all. It has kept a discussion alive that what will happen to those living below sub-subsistence with no social standing. However, what it misses is that it’s not the daily wage labourer in construction sector only but many who work as part timers or do specific work through house calls that have been smacked.

The lower middle-class blue-collar youth is equally distressed. The boys and girls working at cineplex, shopping malls, salons, restaurants, cafes, etc. will all go unpaid. These are the one who aren’t even in prescribed line for State sponsored social protection; and yet in these testing times their families will be equally hurt.

Each political government has had some dole-out packages which the other would shelve except zakat based Baitul-mal. Social protection has a history of being debated as a political hand-out and criticized as a budgetary luxury by the government used for political expedience. It reached some level of consistent presence as a programme when BISP was created. Yet we are a country which designs its cash transfer programmes along categories of ‘deserving poor’ and ‘non deserving poor’; hence, staying at home to avoid getting sick is not an option for everyone but an indulgence for the rich.

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The explanatory narratives of not taking COVID 19 seriously maybe garbed in faith or spun into conspiracy theories of a deliberate spread that can be stopped at will. In reality, it is the cost of changing behaviour which stops them from changing fatalistic death seeking behaviour in face of this pandemic. This includes both opportunity cost of missing work and the increased cost of hygiene.

We know that in Pakistan one of the top reasons people fall into poverty and the poor fall into extreme poverty is health shocks. Most people in Pakistan cannot afford the exuberant PKR 8,000 for a PCR test at a private facility. Corona has removed the thin veil of socio-economic class separation and what  is laying bare is the stark inequalities within society. Imagine when this lopsided competition stresses out the national health system and the demand moves from a test kit to a ventilator.

The federal government has to step into action. The daunting task with State is to create fiscal space in a time when its economy is in a melt down. Our under resourced health care facilities need immediate funding. For the pandemic in hand, actions of the State have to be thought through in four distinct but interconnected phases: i.e. early emergency, where necessary preparation is done (a little late but still can avert major disaster); ii. emergency response, where communication on prevention is intensified, testing is deepened and social distancing is encouraged, necessary recourse to cash or food is provided as public private partnerships and/or CSR; iii. early recovery- well designed expansion of cash transfers and support to SMEs, businesses and banks; and iv. during all this work on policy option to provide rehabilitation.

Health disasters from this point on need to be part of our disaster preparedness and response discourse.

While doing the above, we have to recognise that we need to change the economic policy playbook. The stimulus package cannot be for industry alone, it cannot be for big companies alone.  Economic recovery will depend on supply side as well as demand side. Thus, fiscal space created has to benefit both.

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Substantial financing needs to be poured into social protection and supporting SMEs as well. Bold reforms in social protection must be made to make it more inclusive. The charity model of social protection needs to be replaced by the citizenship based model as propagated by experts, like Stephen Kidd – it recognizes social protection as a right.  This is required so that a decade in the future, if there is some other crisis, no government in Pakistan presents its citizen with the impossible choice between a virus and hunger.

Understand this, the new normal of the corona virus demands that we put maximum resources in the early emergency and emergency response. This starts with ensuring our frontline healthcare workers (doctors, nurses, paramedics and others) and civil defence and police gets the best PPE. We have to  recognize that these are our first line of defence against the disease. We cannot send our frontline warriors out without porpoer armour – the consequences can be catastrophic.

This is the time when not having a local government is sorely missed. Let the sub-national levels of government (of whatever manner is there) to do what it can do best i.e. direct reach out to community to not only generate self-help but to regulate the local economic opportunities.  State can initiate enlisting of daily wage workers at Union Council level so that relief – monetary or in kind – can be traced. It can be become a conduit of community support as well – a point from where e.g. food support can be shared with enlisted persons.

The narrative on social protection needs to change. For this, the narrative on the current social contract also needs to be changed. For the longest period of time, there was a trust deficit between State and the citizen in which the citizens considered the State corrupt. Current government has drilled its political narratives and expanded corruption in Pakistan to include society at large as well. This needs to change.

A State that considers its citizens corrupt will always be ill positioned to be a welfare State. The State need to imagine fast, act faster and act at multiple levels. State must use the shock doctrine to reverse disaster capitalism in to disaster welfare.

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