Solidarity in the Middle of a Pandemic

I got to know Shamim when she worked as a cleaner at the girl’s hostel at the university where I work in Lahore, Pakistan. Shamim is a widow with 10 chidren. When the government imposed a lockdown in March to stop the spread of the coronavirus Shamim and her community of Lutheran Christians found themselves stuck at home with no work. While Shamim was still being paid minimum wage by the janitorial services firm she worked for, her neighbors were not as fortunate. Most of them were working as casual laborers on daily wages or running their microenterprises, and lost their livelihoods with the city in lockdown. Shamim came to tell me her neighbors were asking her for food and she had been sharing what little she had but her stocks were running out, while she had 10 children of her own to feed.

In the meantime, the government announced a food relief package for all daily wagers in the country. But lack of an effective delivery mechanism was making it hard to reach many hard hit communities even weeks after the program had started. Shamim’s small community of up to 50 households did not seem to be on the government’s radar. I contacted the nonprofits I knew in the city that were working to eradicate hunger but was told they were overwhelmed by the number of requests they were receiving and couldn't take anymore. This is when I thought of contacting Saima1, a senior bureaucrat in the state government. Saima is a young and dynamic Catholic woman who I had once invited to speak about women in the bureaucracy to my students. I asked her if she could speak to her church to direct some of the international aid that they receive, to feed Shamim’s community. Shamim’s Lutheran church was too small and under-resourced to help its members.

Saima told me that ever since Pakistan had been put on the grey list for money laundering and terrorist financing by the global Financial Action Task Force international aid had dried up for the Christian community. But Saima offered to use her networks in the local government to see if they could help Shamim’s community. Saima and Shamim spent the next three weeks making countless phone calls, with me acting as a liaison. A few times Shamim received a call from the city government giving her hope that relief was coming but it would come to nothing. I almost gave up but Shamim persisted as the hunger around her grew. Saima too seemed to have made it her personal mission to get Shamim’s community the relief they so badly needed.

Three weeks later public officials finally arrived in Shamim’s neighborhood with a truck loaded with dry food rations, and amid much excitement every household received their bag of a month’s worth of wheat, flour, oil, sugar and lentils. Shamim and Saima’s persistence had paid off!

Ghazal Zulfiqar
Assistant professor of public policy
Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS)

1 Pseudonym