COVID-19 presented the world with a uniquely harrowing challenge. Any chance of success in halting the unfeeling advance of the pandemic would entail overcoming parochial attitudes sired by our social fault-lines, pooling resources and reallocating where it pinched most.

Have we failed in that regard?

We had all thought that the enormity of the challenge would unite us all. Where most of the world managed to bridge the fault-lines, somehow, in this part of the world, succumbing to the small-mindedness of a bigot, we exposed our callous attitude towards disadvantaged groups within society. In Indian Gujrat, a government hospital at Ahmedabad saffronised clinical services and downgraded Muslim patients to a separate ward. Closer to home in Korangi, workers of the Saylani Welfare Trust, otherwise a well-meaning charity organisation, refused rations to Christians; elderly women, left completely to the tender mercies of an unsympathetic disease, were asked to convert or simply forget about receiving help. Even on social media, we took to calling COVID-19 the “Shia virus”, and if that were not enough, campaigns with sectarian undertones accused federal government ministers as responsible for the spread of the virus.

These, unfortunately, are not isolated occurrences or simply by-products of the chaos spurred by the pandemic. They are symptoms of a societal ill far more ruinous and sinister: a decades-long disregard for the conditions of religious minorities.

Consider the status of the Christian minority in Pakistan. Last year, a blatantly discriminatory notice specifically asking for Christian sanitation workers was taken down after a social media uproar, but it seems we never took that incident as a learning moment. As a group by and large employed informally, with little job security to speak of, and certainly no paid-leaves or benefits, the Christian minority is especially vulnerable to the predations of COVID-19, and the economic horrors wrought by the pandemic continue to highlight how precariously they’re positioned in society.

While close to a billion dollars are being distributed to households to make up for lost income in the wake of COVID-19, it is regrettable that this relief effort not only overlooks the plight of the Christian minority in Pakistan, it systematically disadvantages them.

The mechanism by which the government determines a household’s eligibility for relief boils down to a poverty scorecard that looks at certain characteristics, like the ownership of electrical appliances, cars, the number of rooms in a residence, etc. This method, called “proxy means testing”, is an accurate metric for poverty, but a poor qualifier of eligibility for relief because of one simple reason: COVID-19 is largely an urban economic shock, not a rural one. As poverty is largely rural, aid is diverted from the “new poor”, the group of people who face poverty as a result of the economic devastation caused by the virus, to people who faced similar conditions far before COVID-19 was a cause for worry. In doing so, the government’s relief effort has become a broad anti-poverty measure, as opposed to a response to job losses on account of COVID-19.

Why does this spell trouble for the Christian community? One, Christians predominantly live in urban centres. Two, the informal nature of their employment means they do not have any social-safety nets to rely on; the newly unemployed are utterly dependent on charity. Three, their professions as sanitation workers, drivers, and paramedics lend to an increased risk of infection, thereby tremendously raising medical and economic costs for households. Four, they lack the political capital necessary to influence requisite modifications in the design of the relief programme.

A pandemic demands swift, decisive action that provides coverage for all segments of society, especially the most destitute. A government’s primary responsibility is to its citizens. All citizens. It is times like these that demand society and the state ensure that minorities are dealt with equitably. It is times like these that highlight the (in)competence of governments. It is times like these, where order disintegrates and the myriad failings of past governance manifest, that allow leaders to take charge and set a singular vision to guide an ailing country.

So, have we failed? No, we haven’t failed. Yet. We haven’t succeeded, either. These are times of great uncertainty, of a singularly unprecedented period of change. We should not allow a historic opportunity to right our wrongs, go to waste. It is at this stage that the government must extend a warm hand to disadvantaged minorities and provide them the special care and consideration they deserve to survive in an increasingly hostile and difficult environment.