Life is full of surprises. Both pleasant and unpleasant.

But some come as a shock.

A rude awakening.

You’re planning a family holiday. Thinking of the next Netflix hit. And making a grocery list for the coming month.

And the next thing on your TV screens is people dying of a virus. Dying in huge numbers. Deaths multiplying each passing day.

And within weeks the global economy is almost shut down. Borders closed. Flights suspended. Shopping malls, parks and cinemas deserted.

“Lockdown” is the new buzzword.

And it can cause as much agony (or more) as the virus itself.

Pandemics like COVID-19 initially choke human bodies. And then they choke human economies. The first killing spree is across the board. But the next is predominantly a targeted assassination of the poor segments of society.

The coronavirus has so far taken more than 14000 lives and affected tens of thousands more without discriminating between the rich and the poor. As countries adopt strict measures to curb the spread of the virus, the global economy is taking a severe blow.

The pandemic could potentially wipe off $1-2 trillion from the world economy as growth slows down to less than 2%. If the situation deteriorates further, the damage could be even bigger. All sectors of the economy have taken a hard hit.

Global supply chains have been disrupted due to closure of factories and movement of people is being curtailed (and banned).

With businesses grappling with the worsening economic crisis and countries going into lockdown, a large number of people stand to lose their jobs and sources of income. Reports of thousands rendered jobless are already starting to surface.

Some are calling it another Great Depression while others are making horrifying comparisons with the recession of 2008.

Every country will deal with the brewing crisis in its own way. Yet, it is almost certain that the weaker economies, that are already marred by stagnant growth and high levels of debt, will have fewer options to choose from. Implementing social safety programmes such as direct cash transfers and food deliveries will be a daunting task for them.

These countries will be forced to seek assistance from international donors like the World Bank and IMF. But given the enormity of the crisis, it is hard to imagine these institutions can provide all the necessary help.

The low-income strata are most vulnerable and swift measures are required to mitigate the impact on them. Even in Pakistan concerns are being voiced for daily wagers. They deserve immediate attention and support.

However, such support must come from all segments of society.

Governments alone cannot win the fight against corona pandemic. Private citizens bear an equally important responsibility in sharing wealth, food, clothing, and if possible, offering the homeless shelter and space.

In rural areas, people are generally well-acquainted with each other and locating poorer households is relatively easy. However, in the urban areas where community bonding is not as strong, a more concerted effort is required to identify and address the economic hardships of the poorer class. In any case, waiting for the government to do everything is neither advisable nor ethical.

The civil society can use various means and methods.

Several organisations based on volunteers are already performing various kinds of charitable activities without any assistance from the government. Likewise, private citizens should join hands in this crisis to collect and distribute cash and essential items such as food and medicines to every household that needs them most. Political leaders can mobilise resources in their constituencies.

In this way, a national crisis can be managed at the local level by local leaders with local support.

The corona pandemic warrants a collective response and unmatched compassion. Otherwise, the anticipated economic recession following the COVID-19 outbreak may take even more lives, and that too in a slow, extremely painful manner. We cannot let that happen!

This is the time to put public welfare ahead of personal comforts.

So, let’s not quarantine our conscience within the walls of our many personal desires, whims and yearnings. As much as we practice social distancing physically, let’s not distance the poor and the needy from our hearts.

Let’s not forget that our homes were built from the blood and sweat of the workers whose livelihoods are at risk of being snatched away by the pandemic. We do owe them a few pennies and a few loafs of bread, if not more, at least until the economy is back on track, and they’ve got their jobs back.

The coronavirus is a harsh reminder that some threats are too big for individuals, groups or government. They transcend traditional boundaries of race, colour and creed. Only the collective response of society can defeat them.

Moneeb Ahmad Barlas

The writer is a freelance columnist. He can be reached at moneeb.barlas@gmail.com.