COVID-19 has exposed the inequalities that persist in terms of access to opportunities in Pakistan, largely stemming from gender, income and wealth inequalities.
When Covid-19hit, there was a phase of rapid digitisation, during which only those with access to technology could operate. In Pakistan, where internet access is limited to 33 per cent of the population, with 76pc of this access further limited to four major cities, and where computer/ laptop/ tablets are owned by only 12pc of households, the digital divide widened economic inequalities. Non-access to the internet and/or digital devices completely isolated the poor from online work and educational opportunities. Hence, Pakistan witnessed the knowledge gap widening due to unequal access to technology as online classes were conducted by only a handful of private schools. Most public schools and low-fee private schools remained closed during thelockdowns,leading to a hike in dropout rates as parents wanted to avoid paying fees.
The youth of Pakistan remained severely disadvantaged during this time. Lockdowns, slow growth and business closures reduced job opportunities for fresh graduates, causing a spike in the proportion of jobless graduates from 36pc pre-pandemic to 37pc post-pandemic.
The healthcare sector crumbled under the weight of Covid-19. There was a severe deficiency of drugs and equipment needed for treatment. While the rich were able to afford access to private healthcare, the poor had to struggle trying to secure spots in designated healthcare centres, making Covid-19 up to 10 times more deadly for them.
During the lockdowns, the working population in Pakistan dropped from 35pc to 22pc. Approximately half the working population experienced job losses or a reduction in income; 74pc belonged to the informal sector. And 27.35pc did not get any income during this period.
During this time, mounting food prices, in conjunction with loss of income, raised the alarm of rising food insecurity. Supply chain disruptions and locust attacks in 2020 caused food prices to surge by a whopping 29pc. Half of Pakistani households had to switch to a lower quality or quantity of food, and 60pc were unable to eat nutritious food. Severe food insecurity increased from 3pc in 2019 to 10pc during the lockdowns; meanwhile, moderate food insecurity rose to 30pc.
Impact on women Women remained disproportionately disadvan-taged during this time. Reproductive and other health services, particularly for women, were heavily compromised. Lady Health Workers were unable to provide outreach services in compliance with SOPs. Consequently, Pakistan witnessed a 30pc decrease in f amily planning services,19pc reduction in skilled attendance at birth, 10pc decrease in newborn care, and 26pc decrease in vaccination coverage. Approximately 17 million children under five years of age missed out on routine immunisations.
Men being confined to their homes and the reduction in incomes increased the likelihood of women being subjected to gender-based violence. There was a significant surge in the reported cases of domestic violence, while the number of unreported cases were feared to be much higher.
School closures and lockdowns increased demand for unpaid care work. In Pakistan, 80.5pc of economically inactive women were out of the workforce due to unpaid care responsibilities. Ninety-four per centof economically active women were engaged in the informal sector, with no job security, and had to suffer from job or income loss.
Learning losses are also expected to be higher in females as they are 8pc less likely than men to own cellphones, and 20pc less likely to use the internet, rendering them incapable of pursuing an online education. At the start of the lockdown, around 26m students dropped out of school, 50pc of them were children who never returned to school once they reopened;60pc of children who never returned to school were females.
The way forward The importance of investing in public health and education services cannot be emphasised enough.
Policymakers need to prioritise development expenditures over all else. Tax policies need to be made more progressive, and an effective wealth tax must be implemented.The absence of universal health coverage in Pakistan exacerbated the vulnerability of the poor to health and economic challenges posed by the pandemic. The Sehat Sahulat Card issued by the government of fered free treatment in only a few hospitals, with the precondition that the patient was admitted in the hospital. Other facilities like OPD, dispensary and medical tests remained out of reach.
During the pandemic, the government made cash transfers under the Ehsaas Programme. These transfers helped the poorest segments cope with the disruption caused by the pandemic. However, to have any real impact on equality measures, transfer payments need to be made periodically rather than as one-offs. In this regard, the Benazir Income Support Programme remains more effective in plugging inequalities.
The digital divide was crucial in creating a `winners versus losers` situation during the pandemic.
The government needs to draw up a comprehensive strategy to close the technological divide by providing digital infrastructure without discrimination.
But special consideration needs to be given to marginalised groups, with a particular focus on creating opportunities for the youth.
Technical and vocational trainings are offered by government institutes across Pakistan; however, enrolment rates remain low, especially for women.
These programmes need to be revamped to target specific skills to improve labour productivity. An improvement in productivity will help Pakistan improve its current account deficit by making industries competitive internationally.
The economy should be regularised to ensure job security, better working conditions, and widening of the tax base. This is achievable if the government incentivises small businesses to register themselves by creating opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship. In this regard, the new SME policy is a step in the right direction.
Businesses should be incentivised to allow employees who are not physically required in of fice to work from home in order to improve the air quality levels in urban areas. This will also prove beneficial for women who are economically inactive due to mobilityissues.
In a nutshell, Pakistan must display its commitment to the SDGs with greater youth representation. The writer is a lecturer of economics and research fellow at IBA, Karachi.