Isolation takes a toll on fishermen's community

With boat services to Keamari suspended, a ban on fishing, and dwindling food supplies, islanders fear starvation

Shakir Sultan March 31, 2020

KARACHI: As the Sindh government imposed a 15-day lockdown across the province to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, life has come to a standstill for the dwellers of Manora, Baba and Bhit Islands.
Already impoverished and largely deprived of facilities, these fishing villages - situated near Karachi - are now struggling with an acute dearth of basic commodities after authorities suspended boat services to and from the islands.
What's more, with a ban on fishing imposed by the Pakistan Coast Guard amid the outbreak, poor fishermen have been unable to earn their daily wages necessary for buying rations. Fishing is the only source of income for the residents of all three islands of Karachi.

Safety versus destitution
Every morning, islanders sail out to the deep sea in their small boats for fishing, take the catch to Karachi and sell them on the streets to make a living.
"The sea is the only route through which we are connected to Karachi. With the suspension of boat services, we are facing a lot of difficulties," said Amir, a resident of Baba Bhit Shah Island. "I don't know how long this situation will continue. On the one hand, there is extreme poverty, and on the other hand, there is the looming fear of the virus. How do we make a choice?"
Muhammad Ali, a fisherman, said that with the ban on fishing, people in his village are starving.
"The government should either supply provisions to the villagers or allow us to resume our fishing activities. So far, no one has taken any steps for us. We don't even know if anyone in the village has coronavirus because there are no doctors here," he lamented.
Muhammad Nawaz, a resident of Salehabad, pointed out that his village had no healthcare facilities and, therefore, patients have to be transported to the city in a boat for treatment.
"Since the boat service has been suspended because of the lockdown, what will happen if someone falls sick or has an emergency? How will we take the patient to the hospital? And if someone has this disease [COVID-19], it will quickly spread to the whole village and endanger everyone's life. The authorities should do something about it," he said, expressing his concern.

No private boats
When approached, private boat owners said that they had also decided to suspend their services because there were not enough passengers to carry to the city.
"We have anchored our boats at the Keamari Port and are waiting for things to normalise. Until then, we won't risk taking the boats and ferries to Keamari," said one of the boat owners, who preferred not to be named.
When asked about the transportation of goods to and from the islands, he said that it was the responsibility of the government to ensure that the villagers are supplied with essential commodities.

Scarce food supplies
Grocery shop owners from all the three islands revealed that they were running short of basic commodities because of the suspension of boat services. Meanwhile, others said that since many fishermen were unable to make any earnings due to the ban on fishing, very few customers were visiting the shops to buy essentials.
"There is a shortage of pulses, rice, flour, sugar, and even salt and spices. The fishermen community is one of the poorest populations in Pakistan. The government should send help before people start dying here of starvation," one shopkeeper said.
Shopkeepers also revealed that unlike in the cities, the people living on the islands could not afford to buy ration in bulk because of their meagre earnings, which only allows them to purchase essential items for a day or two at a time.
"The ban on fishing has broken the backbone of the already poverty-stricken community. In fact, the residents of the islands have become economically devastated," he said.

Where is the government?
When approached for comment, an official of the Pakistan Coast Guard, who preferred not to be named, confirmed that on Monday, rations were given to around 100 families on Manora and several other islands in Balochistan. He, however, did not mention anything about the distribution of rations to those living on other islands in Sindh.
Speaking to The Express Tribune, Fishermen Cooperative Society (FCS) adviser Abdul Sattar said that families of the fishermen were gradually being starved but the government had neither provided any aid nor initiated contact with the islanders.
"We have approached several welfare institutions who distribute free rations to the poor, but no one has reached out to us yet," Sattar said.
Pakistan Peoples Party MNA Abdul Qadir Patel admitted that with the ongoing situation, poor fishermen belonging to the constituency would die of hunger if the government's help did not arrive on time.
"We are waiting for aid to arrive and I also urge people to financially support the people of the islands," he said. "In the meanwhile, I have directed my subordinate staff to compile a list of deserving island dwellers and provide them with some cash to purchase essential items."

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