The COVID-19 pandemic has overturned our lives, what we thought we knew and could expect. It continues ravaging economies, overburdening healthcare systems, and widening the chasm of inequalities. In Pakistan, the pandemic has reinforced existing inequalities, placing the poorest and most left-behind communities both at higher risk of contracting COVID-19 and most vulnerable to its impacts.

Let us take the basic messaging on prevention – the risks of the virus can be mitigated by regular handwashing, but under a third of Pakistan’s population does not have access to both soap and water at home. On the ‘stay at home’ order, while this will indeed help mitigate community transmission, how can those living on a daily wage, without stocks of basic essentials, be expected to survive without a daily wage and access to food?

While the privileged have the option of working from home, informal workers who constitute more than half the non-agricultural workforce, have struggled to find work during these lockdowns. Small traders and vendors have been forced to close their businesses. With the shutdown of livelihood options for so many, we are seeing the amplifying of existing disparities and a regression of development gains to an extent not seen before.

Impact on the vulnerable

The pandemic has rapidly pushed further apart the existing gender disparities in many countries in the region. The data estimates that the pandemic will further increase the workload of women and girls in the country, as they pick up more of the healthcare and homecare responsibilities, shrinking their ability to learn and develop skills, with little done to provide better wages and benefits.

Lockdowns are also severely affecting women and children who already suffer from domestic violence by putting them in close proximity with their abusers. Things are not so different in Pakistan.

Education access takes a big hit. As most schools go online, a lack of ICT equipment and infrastructure keeps poorer students from accessing online classes. They are also far more likely to be pulled out of school during crises to contribute to household chores and income.

Our work at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) includes undertaking a foundational socio-economic impact and needs assessment that focuses on vulnerable groups such as informal workers, women, persons with disabilities, migrants, and more. Our research on the impact of COVID-19 in Asia and the Pacific suggests that governments should orient large portions of their stimulus packages specfically towards the poorest and most vulnerable populations.

Scaling aid and healthcare

Pakistan’s public health system is already under stress. And the absence of Universal Health Coverage heightens people’s vulnerability to COVID-19’s health, economic and social fallouts. Providing a basic income package and universal healthcare will be critical to getting millions back on their feet.


Providing a basic income package and universal healthcare will be critical to getting millions back on their feet.

Time is not on our side. The need to act fast and to do so using innovative means to get cash and basic services to those who need it most, will be key to getting things back on track in terms of peoples’ wellbeing. This is a key first step to investing in more sustainable pathways for a future of development lined up with the SDGs.

A key innovation that Pakistan has launched to this end is the Ehsaas Ration Donation Coordination Platform, a portal that aims to connect food donors and philanthropists to communities most in need of help. Extending digital services at scale and access to them are priority.

These efforts have underscored the need for long-term investments in health systems and accelerating innovations in tele-medicine and tele-education to resume discontinued services, all the while investing in digital connectivity as a larger public good. Countries that had invested in digital infrastructure with digital skills for young people including in low income communities have had great pay-off.

Tech-driven innovation

The National Health Hackathon, run by UNDP with our partners, is an example of how we can make technology and innovations work harder and faster for those left behind, to combat COVID-19 and to go beyond to tackle stubborn development challenges, with more sustainable options.

The Hackathon led us to some interesting ideas, such as detecting COVID-19 through cough patterns using artificial intelligence, integrating UV light panels into face masks for repeated sanitization. Both public and private sector engaged.

UNDP is now assisting the federal and provincial governments in Pakistan to strengthen response efforts, supporting economic recovery, conducting rapid diagnostics, and improving service delivery in the country, using behavioral and systems change, some driven by technology and some by policy and institutional measures to extend reach.

Innovation can help other aspects of inequality too. UNDP’s Pakistan National Human Development Report (NHDR) on Inequality (2020), brings forward new Child and Youth development indices, with aim to add new ways of tackling inequality with further policy and institutional innovations in Pakistan. This can in turn work to insulate these groups from the damage wreaked by COVID-19 and help with faster recovery.

Rising inequality in the last ten years, kept 140 million people in poverty in the Asia-Pacific region. Without addressing inequalities and the injustices it spreads, a recovery for all is near impossible. COVID-19 has laid bare these deep cracks and gaps in our societies.

It has also given us a chance to redeem ourselves, as leaders, policy makers, investors and partners, to act in new ways and to ‘build forward better’ than ever before. The year 2020 will leave an indelible mark on all, and whether that mark tells a story that is one of success or of failure in a country’s response to COVID-19, will depend on the choices we make today.

This article is by Kanni Wignaraja, Assistant Secretary-General of the United Nations and Asia Pacific Director of the United Nations Development Programme and Ignacio Artaza, Resident Representative, United Nations Development Programme in Pakistan.

Image by Sania Nishtar, Special Assistant of the Prime Minister of Pakistan on Poverty Alleviation and Social Protection.