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Daily Wagers Are Left With Two Options: Death By Coronavirus Or Death By Starvation

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The country is on the brink of implosion not just as a consequence of the pandemic, but also due to past misadventures surfacing in what is a very bleak time. If resources were allocated towards human security, which includes health and food security, as opposed to other frontiers of security that are beyond bloated, we wouldn’t have seen the system collapsing today, writes Xenia Rasul.

With the fatalities from COVID-19 on the rise and Prime Minister Imran Khan skipping the special session of the Parliament held to discuss the coronavirus situation in the country last week, it seems that policies to contain the virus are failing. Moreover, the sitting government is not interested in drafting new ones to replace them.

So far we have been presented with a clear binary: lives or livelihoods. Policymakers have had us believe that it is an either or situation, and in effect, presenting a moral dilemma that pushes us to empathise with the difficulties faced by the sitting government. However, this is far from the truth. The initial response of the government to protect big businesses and industry with generous packages reveals that this is not a matter of meagre resources, but of misplaced priorities.

From the onset, the ruling party offered the working class nothing but the status quo, while directing its resources towards industry and big businesses in the form of export, construction and industry packages. The ruling party claimed that the revival of the economy was in the collective interest of the public.

However, while businesses stay afloat, workers continue to lose jobs due to mass layoffs in the absence of state policy ensuring job security during these precarious times. These bailout packages have not translated into job security for workers, instead, have protected the interests of the bourgeoisie in maintaining their profits. It is evident that the most vulnerable categories are overlooked when considering collective interest.

The government claims that the lockdown is not a viable option because of the interests of the working class, and that these people are willing to risk lives for the sake of their livelihoods. However, the working class never had a choice to begin with; those in the working class aren’t willing to risk their lives. They have no other option. Considering the government has been unable to offer policy solutions to ensure job security along with a basic monthly income for survival, venturing out to earn a living is the last resort.

The Ehsaas Program, an extension of the Benazir Income Support Program, is being lauded as a pro poor initiative started by the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaaf (PTI). However, it is interesting to note that while PTI’s strategy is to present cumulative data for shock value of how generous the government can be, in reality each family is given a total of Rs. 4000 a month for three months. Other than giving miserly cash handouts, the government hasn’t presented a policy to ensure the long-term wellbeing of the working class. Similarly, the healthcare system that the working class greatly relies on has been neglected. Doctors are deprived of PPEs, and there is a severe shortage of ventilators.

Moreover, instead of fulfilling their responsibility as elected leaders and representatives, those in government have deflected responsibility and put the onus on the general public to abide by Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) and ensure that they live through the pandemic. Non-essentials like malls, markets, beauty parlours have been given the green signal to open their shutters under the guise of protecting the working class, when in reality resource distribution and reallocation to ensure that they survive both from the virus and starvation hasn’t been given a thought.

The ruling party, particularly Prime Minister Imran Khan, has also chosen to do this while confusing the public regarding the seriousness of the virus in terms of who it affects and how deadly it can be. Instead, throughout the course of the virus emerging in Pakistan, PM Imran Khan has referred to it as a flu that could possibly diminish in hot weather, and one which disproportionately affects older people. It is possible that consistently misinforming the public regarding the severity of the virus, and pushing a narrative of resigning to our fate and living with the virus, could be traced to the noncompliance of citizens with SOPs.

Saying that the virus affects some more than others, and others like Minister Asad Umar hinting at the success of following a policy of the population contracting the virus and becoming immune to it, one could deduce that the government may be hinting at leaning towards a policy of herd immunity. The concept of herd immunity entails that a majority of the population has to contract the virus, survive from it, and become immune. In the fine print, what this means is that many won’t survive in the absence of a vaccine. With Imran Khan hinting at disproportionate effects of the virus on the population, and pushing for a ‘business as usual’ approach despite widespread breaches of SOPs, one can presume the criminal intentions of the ruling party.

There is no doubt that the working class will bear the brunt of such a policy considering that they are more likely to venture out to earn daily wages and cannot afford to confine themselves to their homes, contrary to what Chief Justice Gulzar would have us believe. Moreover, unlike those living in urban centres, working class people do not have the privilege to limit themselves in compact homes, or to practice social distancing in cramped market places. The capitalist and inhumane nature of the reaction of those in the corridors of power is also evident through recent statements by Justice Gulzar stressing that while some might not want to buy Eid clothes, there are many who do.

All lives, as we can see, aren’t created equally. Consumerism of the rich trumps the lives of the poor. The imminent collapse of the public healthcare system that the working class relies on, and the value we attach to the lives of the poor, would mean that their access to proper healthcare will be severely limited in the future in case they contract the virus.

Contrary to the absolutist criticism coming from the government regarding those in support of the lockdown, those stressing on the importance of the lockdown also emphasise the need for cushioning those economically worse off during this pandemic. However, unlike the ruling party that insists on citizens taking sole responsibility for limiting the spread of the virus, their reference point remains the government when discussing chalking out a solution that assures the working class does not have to choose between death by disease or death by starvation.

The country is on the brink of implosion not just as a consequence of the pandemic, but also due to past misadventures surfacing in what is a very bleak time. If resources were allocated towards human security, which includes health and food security, as opposed to other frontiers of security that are beyond bloated, we wouldn’t have seen the system collapsing today. However, past misdemeanors do not absolve the present government of responsibility, and certainly should not be used as an excuse for a collapse. The sitting government too has failed in reallocating resources, and has proven through its focus on industry and big businesses its true anti poor nature.

With the budget upon us in a month and a half, one can only hope that we learn from this ordeal, and can promise that living life will always be a guarantee instead of an option.

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