KARACHI: When he returned from sea a few days ago, after a month working on a fishing vessel, Saifullah Khan found the seaside Karachi neighborhood where he was staying completely deserted.
“I learnt that those who returned earlier had already reached their hometowns because life has come to a standstill in the port city due to coronavirus,” Khan told Arab News over the phone from Kashmor, a town connecting the provinces of Sindh, Punjab and Balochistan, on the way to his hometown, Batkhela, in northern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province.
Not only commercial activity, but also passenger transport has been suspended in Pakistan in response to the coronavirus pandemic. A ban on intercity public transport was enforced on March 19. Days later, train and flight services were ground to a halt, leaving hundreds of thousands of people from other provinces, like Khan, jobless and stranded in Karachi — the hub of Pakistan’s business activity.
Khan and three of his colleagues paid Rs60,000 ($358) to a local agent to arrange a car for them. They would normally go by bus for only Rs3,500.
“I was shocked, but had no other option as all means of transport were shut down. This is a huge amount, but we had to reach home at any cost,” he said. The trip cost him most of the Rs40,000 he earned offshore.
The lockdowns have opened a gray zone in the transportation sector. Demand is high, offering huge yields to middlemen and drivers.
“Agent takes Rs60,000 but gives us Rs48,000,” Asif Ali, a cab driver, told Arab News.
“It’s a difficult job,” he said, “You have to face police and you have no food on the way, but at least we are not sitting idle. I have made some six trips and given the flow of passengers I hope I will continue until Eid. When the lockdown ends, we will return to usual business.”
He may expect even more passengers in the coming days.
According to Arshad Kamal, a fisheries agent in Karachi, around 14,000 men, mostly from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are still at sea.
“We are expecting some 3,500 fishing boats to return by Eid,” he said, “Since they cannot stay in Karachi due to the epidemic and lockdown, they will certainly go to their homes.”
People fear the situation will not change anytime soon, as infections across Pakistan have been on the rise. If they can only afford it, they will choose to return home before it gets worse.
Sharif Zada from Buner in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said it took him three days to reach his hometown when he left Karachi on the auto-rikshaw he drives for a living. Three friends accompanied him on the way home.
“It was a difficult journey by rikshaw. We couldn’t relax or sleep and would get just one meal. But we had to reach home to meet our loved ones,” Zada told Arab News.
Noor Zameen from Swabi district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa who lives in two rooms with his family of eight in the slum railway colony of Karachi, rented a pickup car to return home when the garment factory he was working for had to shut down.
“What could we do? We thought it would be safer in our hometown. There was no way staying in Karachi after I lost my work,” he said.