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July 5, 2020

Poverty of the rich


July 5, 2020

The governor of the State Bank of Pakistan recently stated in an interview with CNBC that the coronavirus lockdown was “a luxury of the rich” and adversely hurting the poor, and in turn, the economy.

This tirade against the rich in Pakistan is nothing new. It has been spearheaded by the government since the pandemic reached our shores in March. We have been told time and time again over the last few months that the lockdown is only for the rich who can afford it.

The trade-off between saving lives and saving the economy has become a convenient excuse to not do what one should do to save lives in the first place – focus on public health. In fact, I wrote in an earlier piece in these pages that saving the economy is pointless if you don’t have any lives left to run the economy.

Yet, this narrative keeps on coming to us from those who ironically can also claim to be part of the rich themselves – our ruling party and elected (and non-elected) representatives.

There are two distinct contradictions in the way the state has been framing its responses to the pandemic by using the selfish rich as its benchmark. First, that poverty and the poor have always been used by countries like ours, as a bargaining chip to extend policies of entrapment that ultimately are designed to benefit only a select few. Second, we don’t actually have a way we can measure whether lockdowns or other pandemic controls are actually favouring the rich more than others.

Regarding the first point, it is no hidden fact that each successive government of this country has failed the people almost entirely. We have still not been able to meet the targets of several of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals of Agenda 2030. In fact, one of the reasons the coronavirus risks spreading so rapidly in Pakistan, is exactly because we have never had any of these systems in place. Ever.

Furthermore, no government anywhere can use poverty and the poor as an excuse without taking responsibility for creating or exacerbating the situation in the first place. If poverty is endemic in a country, it is not because the poor have created it, but because state policies have never been designed to work to their advantage.

Even more inflammatory is using the poor as a reason not to control a deadly virus through limiting social and as a result most economic activity, and to simultaneously not put any anti-poverty measures in place to support the (temporary) lost economic revenue of the poor, in the event they actually get sick (the Ehsaas debacle notwithstanding). Which is the likely scenario in the event of no-lockdown. The government not having the fiscal strength to support the economy during a crisis, as the State Bank governor and other officials also keep reminding us, is certainly not the fault of the poor.

Because the other side of the wealth argument is that if lockdowns affect the poor adversely, then the virus cannot be contained, thus risking both illness and death. So if you don’t want to lock down, then at least boost public health measures to manage the fallout. The current circumstances show that the government seems to have chosen neither to limit economic activity nor protect the health of its citizens.

How then can anyone claim that the lockdown is an activity of the rich?

To the second point, when we speak of the advantageous rich in Pakistan, who exactly are we talking about in the current scenario? The many textile magnates who mercilessly fired all their workers, many of them daily wagers, at the start of the pandemic? Or of the Pakistan Steel Mills that fired almost 9000 workers? Or the rich who are our elected representatives, but who keep getting exposed as indulging in corruption and criminality?

Was it the luxurious indulgences of the rich during the lockdown/pandemic that compelled the government to suddenly shut down the PTDC and fire its employees on the spot? Better yet, was it to show down to the rich that the current budget completely ignored the two most vital areas of society during a pandemic or otherwise – health and education – while propping up industries and sectors that catered to the politically uber rich?

Further worsening this argument is the extreme contradiction made by the government itself that the onus of saving the lives of the poor now lies on the poor themselves. If they don’t follow SOPs, they risk their lives. But economic activity cannot stop because the poor depend on it.

How does this logic fit into the wealth narrative?

The truth is that everyone, including those saying this, know that the rich vs poor argument is one that just cannot hold for a country that has been ignoring almost 80 percent of its ‘non-rich’ population for decades on end. Even worse is to suddenly realize, but not to publicly admit of course, that the economy that we so treasure, but divide so unequally among us, is only possible because of the blood, sweat and tears of the poor. The same poor who are now standing in the way of life and death – of our economy and their lives.

The writer is an independent specialist and researcher in international development, social policy and global migration.