Report from CLAAS on the Situation of Minorities in Pakistan amid the COVID -19 pandemic
Prime Minister Imran Khan has extended the lockdown period until 30th April. Although the whole world is facing unprecedented challenges because of COVID-19, Pakistan is particularly vulnerable because it has been going through an economic crisis for several years now. In response to Imran Khan’s recent appeal to the international community, several countries have postponed their instalments while the IMF has approved disbursement of USD 1.386 billion as a financial assistance to Pakistan to meet its urgent needs because of the COVID-19 outbreak. But compared to the need of the present time it doesn’t seem sufficient. Though the prime minster has extended the lockdown time, at the same time he has allowed some businesses to reopen with certain restrictions.
Government and Prime Minister Imran Khan:
Imran khan appears very concerned about the situation that has stemmed from the COVID-19 outbreak. He has several challenges in front of him but at this stage what worries him most is the survival of poor citizens who have lost their income, and how to support them. There are concerns that if the lockdown continues for a long time, and people have no food and money, they may ignore the government restrictions and break the lockdown and come out to the street, which could lead to anarchy and his government cannot afford that.
Keeping in view the present situation he has taken several steps in this regard like calling on overseas Pakistanis asking them to donate generously to the ‘PM Relief Fund for COVID-19’. His main concern is that more people may die with hunger than coronavirus. He is appealing to rich and wealthy people, overseas Pakistanis and the international community to help Pakistan in this difficult time.
On the 4th of April he tweeted “In the subcontinent, with a high rate of poverty, we are faced with the stark choice of having to balance between a lockdown necessary to slow down/prevent the spread of COVID19 & ensuring people don’t die of hunger & our economy doesn’t collapse. So we are walking a tightrope.”.
In his latest televised speech he cautioned that the pandemic’s socio-economic impacts would be more severe in the developing countries.
He proposed that the developing countries be provided with fiscal space and financial relief through enhanced debt relief and restructuring and other additional measures that could help them manage the unfolding crisis.
As well as the Prime Minister, several human rights organisations and even the world bank have expressed similar concerns for Pakistan.
The world bank has said that South Asian governments must ramp up action to curb the health emergency, protect their people, especially the poorest and most vulnerable.
The report further says that the impact of the pandemic will hit hard low-income people, especially informal workers in the hospitality, retail trade, and transport sectors who have limited or no access to healthcare or social safety nets. The report notes that the COVID-19 shock will likely reinforce inequality in South Asia.
The Human Rights Watch has expressed similar concerns in their recent report on Pakistan – Pakistan: Workers Face Health, Economic Risks, which says “Social distancing, quarantines, and the closure of businesses will have enormous economic consequences for garment and textile workers, domestic workers, home-based workers, and other workers in low-income households”.
“The Pakistan government should adopt measures protecting workers affected by COVID-19 from suffering loss of income that would push them further into poverty and deter them from self-isolating to contain the spread of the virus.”
Imran Khan has announced some Relief Packages for the poor, and according to the media, the Government has started reaching poorer citizens, but it is not possible for the government to reach everyone as it has no record of such people especially of those working on daily wages.
Also, Mr Khan has formed the relief Tiger Force to distribute aid and support, which is joined by a huge number of volunteers. The opposition has been criticising the prime minister but there are some reports that the Tiger Force has started its work. But I have inquired from some of my own NGO contacts and according to them no one has contacted them, and there are many who may not fulfil the criteria set by the government. They are not very hopeful about the government policies.
The peak time was anticipated for the end of April and experts were expecting a maximum of 50,000 deaths but to date the death toll is quite low. Many people believe the government is hiding the information as it has no capacity to determine the right number of new cases and deaths. One reason to extend the lockdown is to buy some time to make all the arrangements to deal with the pandemic. A further extension is likely as the peak was expected by the end of April and it is now expected in May and there may well be further extensions.
Discrimination and persecution amid COVID – 19
Discrimination against the religious minorities in Pakistan has been a long-time issue and no matter what the situation is, treatment toward minorities either by the government or the individuals will remain the same. Some new cases can be seen in the social media but since there is lockdown and Christians NGOs are not fully functional, we are not fully aware of the situation, and somehow it seems like a break, but we will know the real situation when the lockdown comes to an end.
There are some reports that Christians and Hindus who often come from some of the poorest communities, are at increased risk at this time. Widespread discrimination against Christians and other religious minorities which has seen churches and Christian communities attacked, is well documented. Therefore, it is likely that Christian and other religious minority communities may find it hard to access any available government support and may find it denied to them altogether. We are already hearing reports from our office in Pakistan and other partners of non-Muslims being pushed to the end of the queue or denied support completely. USCIRF and some other organisations have already expressed their concerns about this.
This year Ramadan is starting on 23rd April. Since this is the holiest month for Muslims, Ulemas have threatened to break the restrictions and there are some reports about clashes between the mosque attendees and the police forces. But after the religious leaders met with the President of Pakistan Dr Arif Alvi it is has been decided to lift some restrictions. “Mosques are given permission conditional to taking due precautions,” a statement following the meeting said, adding that it was mandatory for mosque visitors to wear masks.
It was decided worshippers would maintain a 6-foot (2-meter) distance from each other instead of the usual Muslim practice of praying shoulder-to-shoulder and that mosque administrations will disinfect premises regularly.
Earlier this week renowned clerics threatened to violate the restrictions, saying prayers were essential for Muslims and should be allowed as long as safety measures were observed.
The Government has announced a Rs 2.5 billion special Ramadan Package for the Muslims. It announces Ramadan packages almost every year but due to lack of awareness, the government has never announced any packages for the lent period. It is not just the government’s fault as there are many politicians who were aware about the lent period, even Christian politicians, who didn’t raise the matter with the government.
The worst time is yet to come for Pakistan and especially for the Christians. Unfortunately, there are many Christians who were already struggling to make ends meet and because of the lockdown the situation is going from bad to worse for them because there are many who rely on daily wages.
Therefore, if there is no work, there is no money, which means no food for themselves or for their families. There are already several families on the brink of starvation. I am told the story of Elisha, who is a rickshaw driver, and because of the lockdown he has no earning. He is selling his rickshaw. He may get Pak Rs. 40,000 to 50,000 which could last for two months. He doesn’t know any other skills and will either hire the rickshaw or work as a labourer when things return to normal. His new situation not only affects him, but his whole family as he will not be able to pay the rent of his house, schools fees for his children, and may not be able to buy food for his family.
CLAAS has already received several reports of Christians who are particularly suffering under the shadow of Covid-19. The churches and Christian NGOs have failed to respond to the growing situation. Very little aid has been distributed through the Churches and Christian NGOs which greatly concerns me.
Although we (CLAAS) have started distributing aid and support to the poor, it is not enough. The response from the Christian charities and trusts has been limited and since we believe this situation is going to continue, therefore we have decided to continue our emergency aid programme as much as possible until September.
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