PESHAWAR: Sukha, a 60-year-old resident of Muhallah Husainiya, Peshawar, works as a maid in various houses. Her world turned upside down when COVID-19 gnawed its way across Pakistan.

Sukha is the breadwinner and is occasionally supported by her young son, who contributes to the family income. The pandemic and the subsequent restrictions by people on their domestic workers had left Sukha and her son to live in enforced idleness. With no available source of income, she recalled, “This disease had limited us to our home. We didn’t go out for work; how would we have fed ourselves? Hunger and poverty would have crushed us”.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spread with an alarming rate infecting millions and shutting down businesses. With 40% of Pakistan’s population falling below the poverty line, the coronavirus outbreak added to the woes of the poor. It exacerbated the real miseries of the vulnerable as they could not make ends meet.

In mid-March, the government had to impose a countrywide lockdown. Restrictions on movement and closure of businesses resulted in people losing their jobs. Daily wagers and casual workers were hardest hit because their meagre income did not allow them to save. They could not afford to feed themselves and their families.

The government came forth to provide financial support to low-income families in terms of urgent cash (Rs12,000 one-time assistance) to help them manage their basic needs during the lockdown. The financial support translated into the countrywide Ehsaas Cash Emergency Program. An SMS short code service (8171) was the entry point to identify beneficiaries. Besides, deserving families were verified by a national survey conducted by the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, the provincial governments reached grass-root levels through the district and local government administrations, and requests were also sought on the prime minister’s portal.

The government of KP ensured that maximum people were reached both within the settled zones and in the newly merged areas. The provincial government, in collaboration with UNDP’s Merged Areas Governance Project, is closely monitoring the daily disbursement process. Given the nature of the Ehsaas Cash Program, human errs are foreseeable. Therefore, the provincial government is playing the role of a watchdog and is bridging the gap between the federal government and the residents of KP. It is improving the efficiency of the program by performing disbursement spot checks, tracking cash pilferage, and highlighting core issues faced by the people at the centers. Besides, the KP government under the economic recovery plan (Azm-e-Nau) has allocated Rs29 billion for overcoming socio-economic fallout caused by COVID-19.

Despite hurdles, the government is transparently implementing fiscal measures. To prevent tampering and opacity, cash transfers are made after biometric verification of each beneficiary through the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA). Even during the lockdown, provincial governments provided open and accessible public spaces for setting up cash disbursement arrangements. Security, permission to keep retail points of sale (POS) agents open, management of crowds at cash points, preventive measures like hand hygiene, and social distancing were imposed so that the beneficiaries could withdraw cash conveniently.

Over four months, the program has distributed Rs145 billion to 12 million families across the country. Dr Sania Nishtar, Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection, stated that the government has successfully completed the target of disbursement of Ehsaas Emergency Cash among 12 million beneficiaries. Given the success of the program and people’s needs, the government has set a new goal of reaching 17 million households with an increased budget of 203 billion rupees.

The COVID-19 pandemic is only the tip of the poverty iceberg. Poverty and hunger crisis are deep-rooted in the country. The rationale behind the institutional action of the Ehsaas Program is not a temporary relief package. But in the long run, it promises to transform the country into a resilient and financially inclusive economy.

For many like Sukha, the Ehsaas Cash Program is a sigh of relief in these difficult times that validates the government’s empathy towards its people. As she stood in the queue at Government Shaheed Hasnain Shareef Higher Secondary School City No.1 Peshawar to receive cash, she expressed her gratitude and good wishes for the government, “I am destitute and come from a humble background. I received a message to visit and collect money. I have been assisted and given respect here. I am thankful to the government for this support”.