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Spared the worst of Covid-19, Pakistan’s poor abandon SOPs

While Pakistan managed to avoid the huge numbers of casualties authorities had feared, a social divide is appearing between those who observe SOPs and those who do not.

Staff Writers
2 minute read
A healthcare worker takes a nasal swab sample from a woman at a Covid-19 testing facility at a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, Dec 30, 2020. Photo: AP
A healthcare worker takes a nasal swab sample from a woman at a Covid-19 testing facility at a hospital in Karachi, Pakistan, Dec 30, 2020. Photo: AP

Pakistan has reported just over half a million Covid-19 cases so far, and 11,157 deaths – far fewer than the kind of numbers the authorities had feared as the pandemic gathered pace.

Now the authorities are worrying complacency could undo that good fortune, as a divide is becoming apparent between the haves and have-nots when it comes to who is remaining vigilant.

Momin Khan sells snacks and face masks to passengers at a crowded bus station in Islamabad.

Most of them buy a snack instead of paying a few Pakistani rupees for a mask, he told Reuters.

“It’s mostly rich people who buy the masks, the poor people say we don’t have the money anyway and we will do without them,” he said.

Dozens of passengers crowd into minivans, only a few wearing masks. Drivers shut their doors and windows to keep out the winter cold, creating a fug inside their overloaded vehicles.

Restrictions to curb the pandemic, dubbed SOPs, are rarely followed anywhere, but especially not at this transport hub.

At the bus station, SOPs require that waiting passengers sit socially distanced, wearing masks, but almost nobody does.

In the minivans absolutely nobody follows the SOPs. It’s impossible to, even though some do try to space out before the van fills to overcapacity.

“We lose a lot of income when they are apart from each other, because only when the bus is full can we make a profit,” Kabir Ahmed Kiyani, the station’s manager, told Reuters.

“All business has been hurt but especially transport. More than half our passengers are gone.”

Elsewhere, Islamabad’s Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat leads a team of police officers on a surprise inspection of a bustling upscale marketplace.

As the police come into view, shopkeepers usher out customers and hastily produce masks.

“Generally, the people of the upper classes or upper middle class, they are somehow implementing the SOPs,” Shafqaat told Reuters. “But if you see people from the lowest strata, for them implementation of the SOPs is almost impossible, and for us it is also a huge challenge.”

Shafqaat said the city has handed out some millions of rupees in fines and closed nearly 1,000 businesses since the pandemic began. Restrictions like closing schools and mosques could return if infection numbers go back up.

“But there cannot be a complete lockdown; our country cannot afford it.”

Gallup Pakistan reported in a December poll that around 57% of Pakistanis say the virus threat is exaggerated, and 42% say it’s a foreign conspiracy.