“Garma lena hai bhai? 80 rupay kilo hey! (Do you want to buy sweet melons, brother? They are 80 Rupees/kilo!)” I turn left and see Shafiq smiling at me. His cart is full of yellow ripe melons that are shining in the soft evening light.
“How is lockdown going?” I ask him.
“Bhai, na poocho bus (brother, don’t ask). Before, I used to push my cart from 11 am to midnight. These days, I can only work until 6 pm. There are only 30 minutes left before the police would again kick us out from the street. Woh danday martay hain (they beat us with sticks!) Where are you from, bhai?”
“I am from Layyah!”
“Do you speak Saraiki?”
“Then, let’s speak Saraiki, I am originally from Alipur. My mother tongue is Saraiki too!”
“Since when have you been pushing the cart? You look young.”
“I am 16 and have been pushing the cart since childhood. My mom died of a heart attack. Dad married another woman. With six siblings who are younger than me, we are nine people in a tiny house. Dad also pushes the cart. This lockdown is hurting us badly. Before I used to sell about 120–160 kilos of melon a day, but these days, I can sell only 40 kilos. You can do the math how much I earn a day.”
I run the calculation in my head while Shafiq arranges melons. He is wearing a Joker T-shirt.
“40 times 80 is 3200 rupees. Even if he earns 1/4th as profit, he takes home 800 rupees/day (which makes it roughly 5 USD/day),” I think to myself.
“That’s not much. What should the government do?” I ask him.
“I am an illiterate person, brother. I don’t know. But tell me, if we cannot work, who is going to feed my younger brothers and sisters?”
“I am going to post your story on Facebook. Any message for my readers?”
“Mehnat karo, parhai karo, koi hunar seekho! (Work hard, study and learn a skill!) Don’t end up in a position like me. What will you do once you become too old to push the cart? You are not going to survive. Learn from my mistake. Become anything but a street vendor.”
I met Shafiq in front of NJV school in Sadar, Karachi today. There are already over 1000 COVID-19 cases in the Sadar area, and everyone should stay home. But, unfortunately, daily wage workers cannot work from home. Unlike us, they don’t have the money to stock up on food and gain weight while watching Netflix all day long.
It is simple math. The risk of dying from Coronavirus is 2% but from hunger, it is 100%. They don’t have a choice but to go to work.
But we, the lucky ones, do have a choice. We can help them so they can weather the storm, stay afloat while also keeping others safe.
Support VIGA—A Project of Akhuwat Global which is running extensive emergency support programs for daily wage workers. www.viga.org/covid19/