Karachi: The Impact of the Pandemic

The first lockdown in Karachi happened 27th February 2020. The population was unprepared for it and very soon ran out of food and money. Civil society and the state took it upon themselves to supply food to the affected population. It was not an easy job since there were no lists of the people that needed these supplies and also there were manpower constraints on the civil society organizations and on the state to manage this in a city of 20 million population. As such they identified community organizations and supplied food through them. There were complaints of nepotism leading to violence in a small number of cases after which an attempt to use the church, mosques, and temples as a conduit was attempted but they were only acquainted with the households who frequented them and, in addition, in many cases their legitimacy in managing the relief effort was not accepted by the community.

Another problem faced was that large enough places to store food packages which arrived in large quantities from various sources to the community were not available in many of the settlements. This problem has pointed towards the need of having an empowered and equipped lowest strata of local bodies known as the Union Council in the case of Karachi. They are small enough and well-structured to take on the role of storing, supplying, and developing a criteria for establishing priorities. Communities created their own criteria for distributing food. For instance in some cases food was not provided to those who had formal sector jobs and were being paid or to those who had money-making enterprises. Preference was given to day-wage labour or to those who had been retrenched.

Government relief programmes could be accessed only through internet apps. There was much criticism that the poor, because of an absence of access to smart phones would be left out of the process. However, to the surprise of the detractors, almost every house in Karachi owns a smartphone and there is at least one person in each household who has complete knowledge on how to use it. Communities say that this knowledge and access has increased considerably during and after the initial period of COVID.

Medical facilities to deal with the pandemic were also inadequate. Hospitals were long distances from poor settlements and immediate medical care within the poor settlements was not available. Very soon the hospitals ran out of space for new patients and the government had to transform exhibition halls and warehouses into COVID care centers. In spite of this a stage came when there were no beds available for COVID patients in Karachi and no ventilators either. To deal with the ventilator issue, the state launched a successful programme of ventilator production. The number of tests that one could perform in the beginning was no more than 5000 a day for all of Pakistan. This has now been increased to 40,000.

Because of COVID patients having priority, patients suffering from other diseases were neglected and often there was no space in hospitals for them. Apart from ventilators the manufacturing of masks on a big scale was carried out with the result that Pakistan (mainly Karachi) became a major exporter of the item to countries all over the world.

62% of Karachi’s population lives in informal settlements on plots of 20-120 sq. meters. Very often these are anything from between two to five stories high and as such house anything between five to ten families. Sometimes six persons share one small room and 20 persons a toilet seat. In these circumstances social distancing is an impossibility. Also hand washing in a situation where water is scarce and soap is expensive, is difficult to take place. Sitting in a cramped house is not an option either. Consequently in most low-income settlements the pandemic remained ignored but people were forced by the “law enforcers” to keep their gatherings and movements within their settlements. Religious gatherings in mosques and shrines were banned and later on were allowed with social distancing, which was initially strictly enforced but with the passage of time is ignored in many locations. Timing restrictions on restaurants, malls, and shopping areas, are effectively enforced. In spite of this the streets of Karachi are full of unmasked people except for educational institutions, hospitals, malls, and offices where SOPs are strictly enforced. In spite of this the pandemic statistics are very low in Pakistan and one does not understand the reasons for this.

It is estimated that in Pakistan as a whole, 1.5 million jobs have been lost as a result of the pandemic. However, observers claim that this is an understatement. In Karachi there has been sacking of all industrial contract labour and domestic help (mainly women) have lost their jobs in a big way. This, along with inflation, has reduced food intake which, according to surveys, is resulting in children’s growth retardation.

The worst affected sector is education. University education is mostly online and manageable. School education is also online but the vast majority of students, especially the poor, study in government schools where there is no availability of computers or WiFi. A serious concern here is that if this issue is not resolved we will be producing a generation of illiterates.

There are a lot of other issues that are important. You cannot use transport with social distancing. Two persons can’t ride a bike either together whereas that is a requirement for many functions, including medicinal ones, that households have to perform. The government tried to implement these regulations but has completely failed to do so because of public pressure. There has been an un-estimated movement of people from the urban to the rural areas as a result of job loss. In certain rural areas, such as Tharparkar, no COVID cases have been registered and doctors claim that COVID does not exist in Tharparkar.

The points mentioned above raise many issues related to the location, size, and function of medical facilities and advisory centers at different locations. They also raise the issue of determining minimum number of square meters of livable space in a building per person and on this basis to determine densities per hectare. The maximum persons per toilet seat also needs to be determined and relevant changes made in building bye laws related to it. Places of gathering, recreation, and entertainment need to be created, also at a neighbourhood and settlement level and not only at the sector level as is the practice today. These spaces should be managed and maintained by the communities. A school and medical facilities mapping exercise should be undertaken so that they are at locations to which people can easily walk or cycle. Future planning must be pro-pedestrian, pro-street, pro-dissolved space, and pro-mixed land use, which is not so today.

There is general consensus that an effective union council is required for future planning and its implementation at the neighbourhood and community level. For this the Union Council has to be equipped in-house. It requires a trained architect, a quantity surveyor, and a researcher. All these functions can be performed by an architect with support of a research assistant. However, for this to happen you need an architect who has been trained to perform these functions through community involvement. You already have a Grade 16 bureaucrat appointed by the government as Secretary to the Union Council. He also needs to be trained, especially in matters related to land and appropriate community dialogue. The bureaucrats at the district level will also have to learn how to relate to an empowered Union Council.

For this purpose a Municipal Training Institute (MTI) was established in Karachi in the mid-70s. Its purpose was to carry out research and train all levels of urban development and management personnel in understanding and responding to the challenges that urbanization in Pakistan faces. In keeping with the elitist and fascist nature of politics at the height of the Afghan War, it was turned into a martial law court and ceased to exist. It has recently been revived but needs to be nurtured. The world and Pakistan has changed from a desire to establish a conventional welfare state to managing foreign funded infrastructure projects and private-public joint ventures. These concepts are little understood except at the highest levels. There decisions regarding them are taken. An important factor in all this has to be an understanding and its articulation by the Union Council on how all this affects the lives of the communities living in it. Tall order, but necessary.


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