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Coronavirus Pandemic Further Hurts Pakistan's Poor And Hungry

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In Pakistan, which faces thousands of COVID-19 cases, some people are violating stay-at-home orders because they're hungry. NPR's Diaa Hadid reports on a lockdown in a poor country without a strong safety net.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLUTE)

DIAA HADID, BYLINE: Every weekend, a plaintive sound drifts down our street.

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HADID: It's Mohammad Azem, the local monkey man.

MOHAMMAD AZEM: (Non-English language spoken).

HADID: He plays his flute to lure crowds to watch his little monkey dance.

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HADID: The monkey, AlooMashter (ph), carries a tune for change. But it's empty. Azem used to make about $5 a day before the lockdown began.

AZEM: (Through interpreter) The day before yesterday, my kids went to sleep without eating. There was nothing to eat.

HADID: He relies on kindness now. And it's not enough.

AZEM: (Through interpreter) Some nice people give me food to take home, but other people get really mad because of the coronavirus and they tell me to go away.

HADID: Azem isn't happy about pounding pavements.

AZEM: (Through interpreter) I don't want to get coronavirus. But when I see my kids like this, I can't stay home. I go out and work with the monkey. Maybe I'll get some money.

HADID: It's not just Azem on the street. We drive down a thoroughfare where out-of-work tradesmen stand by the road, like gardener Mohammad Fayyaz Khan.

MOHAMMAD FAYYAZ KHAN: (Through interpreter) I haven't worked for weeks, but passersby give me food.

HADID: Khan carries a shovel. It signals to people that he can do gardening or construction work. And it also helps him get charity because people can see he's a laborer hard on his luck and not a professional beggar.

He pats the pocket of his tattered baggy pants. He's got about a dollar left. If people don't give him food, he'll buy bread.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) I'll eat a piece in the morning and a piece in the evening.

HADID: If he could, he'd buy lentils and potatoes, but that's a distant dream right now.

Down the road, other laborers crowd around the traffic lights. Some hold shovels with one hand and ask for money with the other. Nearby, Zafer Iqbal stands by the roadside, hoping motorists will stop to give him food. He's a driver who recently lost his job. His pregnant wife stands a few feet away. They've got five kids to feed.

ZAFER IQBAL: (Through interpreter) We leave in the morning. And when we return in the evening, we have to have something in our hands for the children.

HADID: Iqbal says he's already borrowed from his old boss, and he'll ask him again for cash to pay his $30 monthly rent. But he's unsure how long he can keep asking.

Pakistan's prime minister acknowledged that he was reluctant to shut down the country because of this - the impact on poor workers. To help them get by, the government says it will give about $70 to 12 million families. That's about a third of all Pakistani households. Khan, the out-of-work laborer, says he doesn't know how to sign up.

KHAN: (Through interpreter) People told me that my name should be on the list, but I don't know. I can't read or write. If they pay, that's great.

HADID: But if he doesn't get the government money, Khan says he'll stay here by the roadside, hoping for charity.

Diaa Hadid, NPR News, Islamabad.

(SOUNDBITE OF AKMAL QADRI'S "RAAG HANSDHUNN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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