Beggars are common in megacities, particularly those in the global south and those grappling with widespread urban poverty.
In Karachi, they are a segment of its burgeoning 20 million population that is ever present and all seeing but given their lack of social capital, often invisible to eyes that draft policies.
According to estimates from the 2017 census, Pakistan is home to over 25 million beggars, out of whom 60 to 70 thousand migrate to the coastal city every Ramazan.
In As the government inches towards mass immunisation to the coronavirus, panhandlers have largely been ignored when drafting vaccination campaigns.
Although Special Assistant to Sindh Chief Minister on Political Affairs Waqar Mehdi has claimed that his government plans to immediately vaccinate beggars, social workers and non-governmental organisation (NGO) heads, who work with such communities, believe that this segment of the population had never been the government’s priority.
According to Imranul Haq, who is a social worker involved in relief efforts for the city’s panhandling population, most in this division are vagrant people who seasonally move between urban and rural centres of the province.
Owing to their mobile way of living, they are easily dismissed and hard to keep track of when thinking about policies. According to Haq, it is for this same reason that the government has not bothered trying to generate vaccination awareness among beggars or made efforts for their inoculation.
‘Survival - a more immediate concern’
For much of Karachi’s begging community, it appears that the pandemic is only but a figment of the world’s imagination. “We have much more important things to worry about, like survival,” said 55-year old Mai Dina, who panhandles for money in the vicinity of Teen Hatti Bridge. “I have heard of a prevailing disease, but even if that’s going to kill me tomorrow, today I still have to fend for food,” she added.
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Another panhandler, Raj Kumar, who camps near the Issa Nagri neighbourhood, said that he’s not come across any efforts by the government for the inclusion of beggars in its vaccination campaign. “If the government has plans to act, they must act fast. Most of the beggars in the city are planning to go back to their villages for crop sowing season,” said Kumar.
Equally at risk
However, considering that Covid-19 is a viral threat that doesn’t discriminate between social classes, the dismissal of panhandlers from the mass inoculation drives could potentially risk Sindh’s fight against the pandemic.
“Beggars flow in tens and thousands to Karachi from other parts of Sindh and reside under the city’s bridges and flyovers in cramped living conditions. In such a scenario, these makeshift settlements, where the concept of social distancing is impossible to fathom much less impose, could easily turn into coronavirus super-spreaders in absence of vaccination, “said Haq. “Hence the government should immediately set up vaccination camps near beggar settlements and mobilise health workers to have this unseen population successfully immunised before it’s too late.”
Speaking in this regard, Waqar Mehdi recently revealed the province’s plan for inclusion of panhandlers in the immunisation drive. Agreeing that the risk could grow to a seismic scale if left unattended, he said that the government is looking to join hands with the district administration to vaccinate the beggars against Covid-19. “Vaccination and other obstacles hindering the community’s inoculation will all be removed soon,” the special assistant asserted.
Published in The Express Tribune, August 17th, 2021.
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