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Call for institutionalising relief efforts during pandemic-like situations

A fully functional institutional setup covering the healthcare and humanitarian assistance needs to be installed at the district level to tackle any future pandemics similar to Covid-19, said civil society experts in a webinar titled ‘Humanitarian Assistance in Covid-19 Lockdown – Insights from the Ground’.

The webinar was organised on Tuesday by The Knowledge Forum (TKF), an independent collective that seeks to produce knowledge-based resources to assist in interventions and advocacy for communities’ rights.

The panellists included experts and members from civil society and those who actively contributed towards COVID-19 relief efforts. Sabiha Shah of the Women Development Foundation, Ghulam Mustafa Zaor of the Health and Nutrition Development Society (HANDS), Jan Odhano of the Community Development Foundation, Adeel Ahsan of the Muslim Hands-UK, Kazim Syed of the Research and Development Foundation, and human rights activist Naghma Iqtidar shared their respective experiences of the Covid-19 relief efforts.

The speakers observed that the kind of volunteerism that was witnessed during the Covid-19 lockdown was unprecedented as volunteers played an important role in helping people access day-to-day needs.

Zaor, the chief services executive at HANDS, said that compared to rural areas, the poor living in the urban centres were the worst-hit sections during the lockdown as their jobs were lost and they could not receive any financial support from their employers or the state. Daily wage labourers, domestic workers and sanitary workers faced unemployment and severe economic crisis, he added.

According to him, people were already facing economic hardships before the pandemic and a majority of daily-wage earners were living hand to mouth who needed immediate support for dietary and healthcare needs during the lockdown. The purchasing power of common citizens massively declined during this time, he remarked.

Speakers also observed that a mechanism to support the poor was missing during the lockdown. It was said that the government initiated relief efforts along the same pattern as floods or earthquakes, without realising the need for maintaining social distancing to contain the spread of the disease.

Zaor appreciated the role of the media in creating awareness on health issues during the pandemic. “It is commendable that cellular phone services were utilised at such a vast scale to reach out to the population for following the Covid-19 SOPs.”

Odhano said many national and international organisations joined hands with the government for the distribution of rations and other relief goods. “We assisted the government in identification of seven isolation centres in Jacobabad district.

District Jacobabad saw an overwhelming response from local philanthropists and businesses. They provided more assistance than the government to the vulnerable communities,” he added.

Ahsan said organisations such as the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) and the Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) had a critical role to play to facilitate access and communication with the communities. He said the Muslim Hands UK worked closely with the government departments which helped reach out to 39 districts in Pakistan for food rations distribution.

Responding to a statement about the community’s concerns on the quality of relief goods, speakers agreed that during the course of any humanitarian assistance, the communities must not feel that they were discriminated against at any level.

Naghma pointed out that except for the Edhi Foundation, many charity organisations in Karachi meted out discriminatory treatment towards religious minorities in the rations distribution.

She said that the absence of a database of the low income communities crippled any effort to provide effective relief to the people. She added that the upper middle class survived during the lockdown and even hoarded daily use items, but daily wage workers were badly affected.

Her views were echoed by Sabiha who said the Covid-19 pandemic destroyed the economic well-being of the low-income people. “People are still struggling to cope with the after-effects of the lockdown,” she said, adding that in low-income areas such as Lyari and Malir, people needed financial support but the Ehsaas Programme failed to reach out to a majority of those that needed that support. Syed said one way of addressing a similar humanitarian crisis in the future was to register informal labour. “Social protection for informal labour needs to be formalised and regularised.”

Sharing his experience, he said on some occasions, many organisations had to face a mob situation at the time of relief distribution.

Earlier, in her welcome remarks, TKF Director Aazia Rafiq said there were job losses and people felt economically crippled during the pandemic. “One hopes this situation never repeats itself [but] it is important that relief efforts be institutionalised and people be given assistance in a dignified manner.”

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