LAHORE: The orders of the provincial government to ease the lockdown have left almost all main markets flooded with customers, sparing no room for implementation of standard operating procedures (SOPs) put in place by the authorities to contain the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The relaxation in lockdown was aimed at keeping the wheel of economy turning to protect the under-privileged from starvation. However, it has brought yet another, albeit expected, challenge for the authorities of implementing the SOPs that for the past four days, since the new orders were issued, are being flagrantly flouted. With Eidul Fitr around the corner, all main markets of Lahore, including Shah Alam Market, Ichra Bazaaar, Anarkali and even markets like Kareem Block were flooded with customers hours after they resumed business. The SOPs to prevent the spread of coronavirus were practically not existent.
The government has already warned traders of intensifying the lock down again if the SOPs are not implemented. Sources in the health department have also confirmed that the statement by Minister of industries Aslam Iqbal was not an idle threat, as re- imposing the eased lockdown restrictions was being considered.
Traders and customers on the other hand have put the entire responsibility of enforcing the SOPs on the government and blamed its orders for a pandemonium in the markets.
Muhammad Ali, a trader at Anarkali, wondered how shopkeepers could ask their customers to get out of their shops and wait outside. He said the customers would go to other shops where shopkeepers might entertain them in violation of the SOPs. He said no businessmen would want to lose any customer.
He said the government should have put in place a strict mechanism to enforce the SOPs. He said no shopkeeper would implement the SOPs on his own.
A businessman from Lohari Market, Sheikh Foad, also asked how the provincial government expected to implement the SOPs regarding physical distancing in the market where shops had merely a few feet for the customers. Most of the retail markets in the walled city are either small in size or have narrow streets, making it impossible for any SOP to be implemented. The trader said it was unneccesary to re-open the market amidst increasing coronavirus cases.
On the other hand many traders of Kareem Block and Moon Market criticised the government for introducing ill-conceived relaxations in the lockdown. They said that in Ramazan, since all private offices are closed, people get up at around 1pm, which is when they start arriving in markets in large numbers. A shopkeeper said that since markets are only opened till 5pm, they only have a window of four hours and the same goes for customers. Furthermore, since the shops are only opened for four days a week, the crowd increases.
The shopkeepers said the government should have considered the downsides of putting time and day restrictions on businesses. They said it was unfair to shift all the responsibility onto traders. They said that if the government wants to enforce the SOPs, it should regulate the foot fall in all markets.
Many customers also criticised the opening of shops for limited time without enough monitoring of precautionary steps. Waqas Ahmed, a resident of Johar Town who was shopping at Kareem Block, said the markets were likely to become new hotspots for the virus.
What was the point of closing down only big malls that actually could have enforced the SOPs in letter and spirit and opening all other markets of the city, he asked. He said that even small malls were open. Has the government even considered what would the people do on Eid after buying new clothes, he wondered, adding that there would be family gatherings.
Despite having failed to implement the rules for markets, the government issued SOPs for gyms, barber shops and saloons on Wednesday.
Published in The Express Tribune, May 14th, 2020.