As The Coronavirus Spreads In Pakistan, Volunteers Rush Out To Help

Mar 30, 2020
Originally published on March 31, 2020 5:17 am

Until last week, Ahsan Pirzada ran a law firm in the Pakistani capital. But on March 22, when businesses shut down across Islamabad and thousands of low-wage Pakistanis lost their jobs, he decided to act.

He raised thousands of dollars through his friends and Facebook acquaintances to buy food. He converted his office into a storehouse and made ration packs with flour, rice, sugar, lentils, milk and cooking oil.

"This is enough for a family of four to five people to survive for 14 days," says Pirzada. He gestures to 35 food packs piled in a friend's pickup truck that he is going to deliver to a nearby slum.

Pakistanis pride themselves on their volunteer culture, and days into countrywide shutdowns to halt the spread of the new coronavirus, citizens have sprung into action.

Pakistan has registered 18 deaths from COVID-19 and has identified 1,650 cases of infection, according to government figures, but officials say the number of people with the coronavirus could be as high as 12,000.

One woman, Irum Mumtaz, set up a quarantine ward for a public hospital, run by volunteers. An entrepreneur, Umer Hussain, makes free protective suits for medics. Individuals like Pirzada distribute food. So do leftist groups like Corona Solidarity Campaign and the Robin Hood Army. A Pakistani nonprofit, The Citizens Foundation, does the same but on scale, using its network of 1,600 low-cost schools to aid 700 villages and slums.

But this pandemic poses unprecedented challenges: Pirzada only has a flimsy mask because there's a global shortage of protective gear. And in previous distributions, people crowded around him. "They're in desperate straits," he says. "They will come close and they will try to grab onto you. You can ask them to stay at a distance, but it doesn't work."

This time, Pirzada tries something new: He and other volunteers will put the rations in a church inside the slum. Then they'll call each designated family to pick up their share.

Pirzada parks near the church and volunteers start unloading the rations. People immediately crowd around and keep entering the church, despite efforts to keep them out. One woman tugs at Pirzada's sleeve, demanding food. "Please wait five minutes, mother!" Pirzada says. "I've been waiting 10!" she snaps.

Another woman lingers outside, hoping for food, but she's not on Pirzada's distribution list of 35 families. Shabana — she only has one name — says her brothers are out-of-work taxi drivers and they need food.

Pirzada says he'll make another distribution soon. As for his personal safety, another volunteer group will donate protective gear to him.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now NPR's Diaa Hadid brings us the story of something so common across the world at this moment. It's about a law firm owner whose business is currently out of business. But instead of worrying about his own fortunes, his attention has turned to others.

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Until last week, Ahsan Pirzada was running a law firm. But as businesses shut down around the country and tens of thousands of low-wage Pakistanis lost their jobs, he decided to act. He and his friends raised thousands of dollars to buy food. He converted his office into a storehouse, and he made ration packs with flour, rice, sugar, lentils, milk and oil.

AHSAN PIRZADA: Enough for a family of four to five people to survive for 14 days without hopefully coming out on the street.

HADID: I met Pirzada near a pickup truck he'd borrowed from a friend. It was loaded with big plastic bags to hand out in a slum called the French Colony.

PIRZADA: A lot of people over there are basically taxi drivers and house help. And obviously, at the moment, unfortunately, all of them are struggling to make ends meet.

HADID: And unfortunately, the last time he was giving out food, people crowded around the truck.

PIRZADA: They're in desperate straits, so they will come close and they will try to thank you and grab onto you. You can ask them to stay at a distance, but it doesn't work.

HADID: Pirzada's only got a flimsy mask because there's a shortage of protective gear. But he says you have to take risks. He's inspired by the white helmet volunteer rescue workers in Syria. He tears up.

PIRZADA: I'm in tears right now because those are angels. We're not close to that, but we're trying to make sure that we somehow step into their shoes.

HADID: Pirzada's rush to help people is a classic Pakistani response. Volunteers have stepped in in the aftermath of militant attacks and floods out of a sense of responsibility that many people feel here towards those worse off. Back in the slum, Pirzada says he'll try something new.

PIRZADA: We're going to deposit all of this in the local church over there.

HADID: They'll contact each family and tell them to pick up their rations. He hopes that will avoid crowding - so dangerous now because of the virus. He drives over, and we follow at a distance.

I'm walking into the French Colony slum. There's a cluster of people now standing. They crowd around Pirzada's truck.

PIRZADA: (Non-English language spoken).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: And inside the church, Pirzada struggles to keep order.

SHABANA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: As we're about to leave, we meet Shabana. She only has one name. She says her brothers are out-of-work taxi drivers, and they need food. But their names weren't on Pirzada's distribution list.

SHABANA: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: Pirzada's planning to return soon with more aid, and as for his personal safety, another volunteer group has just promised to give him protective gear. Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.