Pakistan launched the largest social protection effort in the country’s history Thursday with plans to pay close to $1 billion dollars to the country’s poorest in an effort to counter the economic fallout of the Covid-19 crisis.
The Ehsaas Emergency Cash program is a financial assistance effort to assist parts of the population that have been worst hit by the ongoing lockdown in the country, according to Sania Nishtar, special assistant to Prime Minister Imran Khan on Poverty Alleviation and Social Safety.
The program, which aims to cover 12 million families, is meant to assist them to “buy rations so that they don’t go hungry.”
Authorities have used SMS messages and National Identity Card numbers from the country’s extensive National Database & Registration Authority to identify and contact eligible families.
Pakistan’s existing welfare infrastructure gives the country a “slight edge over other developing countries” to roll out such an ambitious program, according to Umair Javed, an assistant professor of politics and development at the Lahore University of Management Sciences, but issues in data collection and the disbursement of cash at a disorganized district level could cause problems.
Plans to hand out cash at close to 18,000 bank branches across the country could cause a “’large mass of people gathering together defeating the purpose of a lockdown enforced for social distancing," said Javed.
Digital Rights Monitor, a digital rights media watchdog based in Islamabad, has called out the programs’ dependency on “technology or technological support," saying that the measures could disregard “people’s right to privacy in the name of tackling a public health crisis. This could “further decrease people’s trust in state authorities.”
However Khurram Hussain, one of the country’s leading financial journalists, described the program as important and “definitely better than nothing.”
Pakistan’s poorest “live to day to day on their wages, when they don’t work, they don’t eat,” Hussain told CNN.
The lockdown in Pakistan has been in place for a month now and the effect on daily wage earners has “been absolutely catastrophic,” said Hussain.
Millions of people living below the poverty line have been “hit very very hard…the Ehsas Emergency Cash program if targeted properly could bring some much-needed respite to these people,” Hussain added.
As of Thursday, according to the Ministry of Health, the number of confirmed cases in Pakistan is now 4,414, with 63 people dead.