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Opportunity In Disaster: The Coronavirus Pandemic As A Wakeup Call For Fixing Extreme Inequality

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The aftermath of the Coronavirus outbreak is a scary business indeed. At the time that I’m writing this, I am not sure about being able to keep my job. A sharp half-cut in my salary has already been announced by the company for April. How long can this state of affairs go on? Nobody is sure.

This worldwide crash in the economy brought us many things to pick and correct. But I argue that if we take the Coronavirus outbreak as an opportunity to make adjustments rather than a juggernaut that necessarily ruins us all, I think we can truly go about redressing longstanding economic imbalances.

Why can’t we think of a redistribution formula for wealth right now, when society urgently needs a new paradigm to operate on? I find myself wondering why change that we need is so elusive – even in a world menaced by a pandemic that is made so much worse by the status quo of our economic and political systems.

The hashtag campaign #Savethepoor is a Twitter trend at the time of writing. At the same time I watch a video where so many people came out in Lahore to protest against the authorities’ indifference to their right to have food during the lockdown. This could be a non-issue for the richer classes of society. They don’t know what it means to be hand-to-mouth in the middle of a severe crisis.

Now there are two things for the poor to contend with: ‘Corona’ and Hunger. And what is the government offering them?

Historical experience suggests that mere gimmicks won’t work. Tiger Forces and Telethons resolve nothing. They only take away our attention from the highly skewed distribution of wealth and resources in Pakistan – a state of affairs made much worse by the disruption of the pandemic. The Coronavirus pandemic has impacted all the classes badly – but differently.

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I propose a two-pronged approach to rethink our economies given the lessons that the current global crisis is teaching us.

Firstly, the time has come where we think of an economic model that should secure at least one year’s worth of salaries and other benefits for employees – and not just for natural disasters or healthcare crises like the Covid-19 pandemic. That kind of cushion would help hundreds of millions of people across the world who are currently dealing with the prospect of unemployment, income cuts and constant economic uncertainty.

And on the level of employees themselves, people will have to start thinking in creative and informed new ways, if they are to build financial resilience in a world of uncertainty. Young people have to think of startup ideas keeping in view future risks like one we are suffering through. Online jobs are there to make this idea possible to some extent.

But it must be admitted that the second part of my proposed rethinking does not cover everyone. What about the rest of society that lacks even access to the internet?

Herein lies the challenge of addressing highly unequal and exploitative systems like the one we have in Pakistan today.

While we question governments and authorities on their inefficiency in providing health facilities and their flawed logistical response to the current crisis, we must not let go of the big picture. We need a conversation about how to address the economic imbalance that the poor have lived through for so many years – with or without the added burden of the Coronavirus pandemic.

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Naya Daur