Image courtesy of Al Jazeera

Under Pandemic Pressure

Strained economy, dominant clerics, poverty and disobedience of rules are just a few of many things challenging Pakistan’s Covid-19 lockdown.

May 2, 2020

When I returned to Pakistan on March 17, many countries had already imposed travel bans to control the spread of Covid-19. Jinnah International Airport in Karachi was the emptiest I had ever seen it. Less than a week later, the provincial government encouraged people to practice social distancing and announced a lockdown to try to contain the spread of the virus.
To resist the lockdown’s blow to an already strained economy and to protect the livelihood of daily wage workers, Prime Minister of Pakistan, Imran Khan, initially downplayed the dangers and opposed a lockdown. He asked people to practice social distancing and ordered the reopening of factories and construction businesses. Despite Khan’s orders, the military worked with the provincial governments to enforce a nationwide lockdown.
Considering that Pakistan is the fifth-most populous country in the world, with a population density of 287 people per square meter, questions arise on the efficacy of imposing a lockdown and stringent social distancing measures. How is a lockdown implemented in a country where people rarely take warnings seriously? How is social distancing practiced in a country where there is no concept of personal space?
Military checkpoints have sprung up at various points in the country — they occasionally stop commuters, take a look inside their cars and ask them where they are going. Police officers have been instructed to intervene if people violate the lockdown.
Every night at 10 p.m., mosques give out the call to prayer, seeking God’s protection against the virus while breaking the silence of the night. People join in from their rooftops as some even set up loudspeakers.
Supermarkets only let few people in at a time and no one is allowed to enter without a face mask. In the lines outside, customers are told to stay in circles drawn on the ground three feet apart to help them social distance. However, many break these circles and stand closely. Taking advantage of the reduced traffic, children can be seen playing cricket on the streets. Beggars still crowd the footpaths.
After adhering to the lockdown for a few days, some have started to return to work against government orders. The domestic staff in my neighborhood work every other day. The person who runs a general store on the corner of my street has paid the authorities and is now allowed to operate his store for a few hours a day. Many cannot afford to self-isolate even if they want to.
For millions of Pakistanis who live inpoverty, the virus is less imminent than the looming threat of unemployment. Starvation is a bigger concern than the Covid-19. Thousands of daily wage workers, who are now unemployed due to the lockdown, are dependent on the government and NGOs for their monthly rations.
In the slums, the threat of contracting the virus is even higher. People still gather in alleyways that are lined with open sewers and social distancing is unlikely to work where people live in cramped spaces.
The number of cases climbs every day, but the official figures are still under-reported. Due to limited healthcare access and testing, many cases go unrecorded. There are currently only 2,500 ventilators across the country, and if the virus spreads much further, the country’s healthcare system may collapse under the pressure.
Tensions between the government and those on the frontlines in the fight against the virus are rife. In a recent incident, healthcare professionals who took to the streets to protest the shortage of masks and PPE were beaten by the police.
Doctors have issued several warnings about the fatal outcomes if the public refuses to follow the lockdown regulations.
“We are already very under-equipped when it comes to our healthcare. We don't have what it takes to fight this,” said one doctor at a press conference. However, these warnings continue to fall on deaf ears.
Lockdown measures in the country are also hampered by the clerics who undermine the government’s pandemic response. It was initially agreed that mosques would remain closed, but worshippers started protesting outside mosques and clashed with security forces when they attempted to stop these gatherings.
Later, influential clerics demanded that the government exempt mosques from the shutdown and have urged their devotees to continue praying there. With the power that the country’s clerics have, the government has had no choice but to give in to their demands. Most mosques are now to stay open as long as the congregants maintain a six-foot distance. With the start of Ramadan, worshippers are cramming into mosques turning them into the perfect locale for the virus’ spread.
With these attitudes toward a lockdown, the virus is likely to spread further, the news will get worse, and suffering will increase. The virus will continue to remain a dominant hazard in the country until the government figures out an effective strategy to contain the spread and the citizens are ready to follow the directives.
Amna Asif is Deputy Features Editor. Email her at
gazelle logo