Published in The Express Tribune, May 22nd, 2020.
The Covid-19 outbreak has posed significant challenges for Pakistan, exacerbating the dynamics of exclusion amongst the country’s marginalised segments. Groups faced by grim socio-economic conditions have faced unprecedented trials and at times, unexpected repercussions of the outbreak, adding to the challenges of developing suitable and sustainable measures to contain the pandemic itself.
From a development standpoint, protecting the vulnerable and marginalised is imperative to uphold social cohesion and resilience, namely, society’s ability to withstand and recover from crises. These concepts are interlinked and mutually reinforcing and define the characteristics of a healthy society; as one where individuals and communities are supportive and where people focus on what they share and have in common.
Therefore, reinforcing the inclusivity of a society, ensuring opportunities to the marginalised and ensuring a rights-based development approach strengthens social resilience. This is particularly true in the context of Covid-19, as the effects of the crisis has disproportionately affected the most excluded. The effects of the pandemic have further restricted access to health, social services, livelihood opportunities and enjoyment of basic human rights. Victims of domestic violence, especially women and girls, face greater risks during mandatory lockdowns and social distancing measures. Their access to public services is also limited. Communities living in high-density residential areas such as urban slums, without adequate water, sanitation or healthcare facilities, also remain extremely vulnerable.
As the Covid-19 pandemic unfolds in Pakistan, UNDP has leveraged existing partnerships to reach the most vulnerable and at-risk populations (including vulnerable and at-risk women and girls) through targeted and innovative interventions to counter the impact of the pandemic. These interventions cover better access to information and basic services, psycho-social support and livelihood opportunities.
The Government of Pakistan has already initiated plans to mitigate the socio-economic impact of the pandemic, both at the federal and provincial levels. The government announced a relief package of Rs1.13 trillion in March, out of which a sum of Rs150 billion was dedicated to the support of vulnerable families. The government has taken some innovative measures to reach out to its citizens, such as an initiative to replace phone ringtones with awareness messages, the establishment of an online health advisory platform with Covid-19 information including protective measures, and the more recently launched telehealth portal (www.telehealth.gov.pk) where doctors and healthcare professionals can register and provide assistance to citizens with Covid-19 symptoms.
Provincial governments have also taken a proactive approach to the pandemic. In Sindh, UNDP supported the provincial government in establishing a 24-hour tele-counselling service, providing counselling to people facing mental health challenges while in self-isolation or at quarantine centres and to people suffering from stress induced by the outbreak or by lockdown measures. In Punjab, the government launched Taleem Ghar, a TV channel and digital platform to enable remote learning for students of Grades 1 through 8.
In Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, UNDP is supporting Chief Minister K-P’s strategic communications unit for Covid-19 related strategic communications and public awareness campaign(s), and working closely with the provincial government to deliver a range of communication products.
Such initiatives help build trust between citizens and the State. Transparency in emergency situations such as Covid-19 enables citizens’ awareness and limits the spread of misinformation. A key factor for reinforcing such trust is by expanding the availability of feedback and grievance redressal systems at the local level. Local governments are ideally placed to identify immediate needs in their respective communities and ensure that adequate measures are taken to prevent and counter the impact of various disasters, including the Covid-19 pandemic.
Despite these initiatives, there is still a need for greater efforts at the strategic and local levels respectively. Resources and strategies are required to address the significant and varied consequences of the outbreak on the people of Pakistan, with focused analysis of at-risk areas and populations, to determine their needs. Particularly regions with known pre-existing group grievances related to long-term marginalisation, political and economic disempowerment and victimisation require special attention and local level support and engagement.
The first step towards resilience is to rationalise and optimise the functioning of local governments (LG), notably by clearly outlining responsibilities of national and sub-national government actors and eliminating overlaps. Building LG capacity for improved financial management, human resource management, and monitoring and evaluation is required. In the longer term (or whenever the conditions will allow so), local government elections and the establishment of local governance systems are essential to ensure effective response at the grass-root level.
The response will truly be inclusive if it builds and empowers existing community networks by providing them with information and resources to effectively coordinate, disseminate information, identify local outbreaks and react effectively. Engaging actors at the community level and involving civil society organisations (CSOs) in the design and implementation of the response is essential. Creating an enabling environment for CSOs including a unified policy for registration and functioning of CSOs will go a long way in enabling their involvement in the development process.
The Covid-19 crisis is threatening social cohesion within countries, as its impact reaches deep into societies, affecting individuals’ behaviour, well-being and mental health. This crisis provides Pakistan an avenue for further integration of the relation between social cohesion and community resilience, creating an opportunity to strengthen and empower local actors and networks, ensuring inclusion of the most vulnerable and marginalised populations. This necessity resonates with the guiding principle of the Sustainable Development Goals and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, “Leaving No One Behind”, that Pakistan was among the first to adopt as its own national development agenda.