Living in a 99 percent Muslim country, Pakistan’s minorities—Untouchable Christians, Hindus, Ahmadiyya, and enslaved brick kiln workers—face systemic discrimination on any given day as they seek jobs, education, and healthcare. Now, these minorities will be the hardest hit as the country undergoes a global pandemic, which the Finance Ministry estimates will cost 3 million jobs, and the worst locust plague in three decades.
In the past few weeks, Pakistan has attempted to mitigate COVID-19’s effect on its economy and people. However, these efforts have largely ignored the needs of Pakistan’s minorities. The result is an increase in human rights violations.
One of Pakistan’s meager efforts is the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program, designed to distribute a one-time cash payment of Rs. 12,000 (about $75 USD) to 12 million poor families. The Ehsaas website specifically states the program’s purpose is to help the most vulnerable get food and sustenance.
However, the program is so riddled with problems that it is useless for minorities.
First, fraud in the program is likely. This January the office of the prime minister referred over 2,000 government officials across all ranks to the Federal Investigation Authority (FIA) for illegally benefitting from the Benazir Income Support Program (BISP), a welfare program under Ehsaas’ umbrella. Both the Emergency Cash Program and BISP run on the same database, allowing for abuse with the new payment. Ehsaas has implemented a biometric security feature to prevent fraudulent usage but does not specify how it would prevent wealthy government officials from abusing it.
Even the program’s security measures that the government has put in place have failed Pakistan’s minorities. The program requires a national identity card number (CNIC) and a cell phone with a SIM card or access to Wi-Fi to request assistance or determine eligibility.
But many minorities do not receive national identity cards if they are born while their parents work in a brick kiln factory. Oftentimes, minority families become effectively enslaved to brick kiln factories if they take out a loan from the factory’s owner and cannot repay it. The owners can charge interest or arbitrarily raise the loan amount to lengthen the minority family’s enslavement for years.
Furthermore, national identity cards list one’s religion, which is problematic in a country with widespread religious discrimination, both by the general public and the government.
For example, Dr. Alfonse Javed and his team at Resources and Aid Mobilization Pakistan (RAM), an organization devoted to rescuing brick kiln workers and assisting minorities, assisted about 100 brick kiln workers and Christians apply for the Ehsaas Emergency Cash Program.
While the cash distribution is now completed, of those Javed helped apply only those who were already benefitting from BISP received the emergency assistance. However, Javed knows of Muslims who were not receiving BISP but still benefitted from the program.
Ehsaas’ method is also discriminatory because applicants must apply through SMS or Wi-Fi. While many Pakistanis use cell phones—the World Bank shows that 72.6 out of 100 persons used a cell phone in 2018—many minorities and brick kiln workers cannot afford cell phones because they do not have the same job opportunities as other Pakistanis.
Applying for the program through Wi-Fi is an insufficient alterative to SMS because only 15.5 percent of the population uses Wi-Fi, according to World Bank estimates, and those without cell phones surely do not have access to Wi-Fi.
Even if some minorities have access to Ehsaas’ cash program, COVID-19 will still hit them hard.
Before the pandemic, government hospitals often denied healthcare to minorities based on their religion or status. If they could get medical attention, most brick kiln workers became enslaved after using loans from the factory owners. Meanwhile, the World Bank estimates Pakistan only has 1.0 doctors and 0.6 hospital beds per 1,000 people as of 2017. In comparison, the United States has 2.6 doctors and 2.9 hospital beds per 1,000 people as of 2017. Pakistan’s COVID-19 cases have surpassed China, and people are dying due to limited hospital capacity. Healthcare discrimination against minorities will only worsen.
Then minorities face another crisis as COVID-19 and subsequent supply chain disruptions cause the food supply to dwindle. This crisis, along with the worst locust plague in 30 years, will further push minorities to the bottom of the country’s priority list.
While the rest of Pakistan debates whether the country should have reopened for the sake of the economy, these vulnerable minorities suffer the brunt of the pandemic with no government support.