Balancing a selection of snacks arranged on a tray in one hand, 50-year-old Momin Khan hawks face masks to passengers at a crowded bus stand in Islamabad.
Most choose the snacks instead of paying six cents for a mask, he says.
“They say: ‘instead of buying a mask for Rs. 10 (US $ 0.62) why shouldn’t I get something to eat?’ That is why food sells more, and masks sell less.”
Nearby, a group of passengers crowd into a minivan, only a handful wearing masks, as the driver shuts the door and windows to keep out the winter cold.
Pakistan has reported 527,146 COVID-19 cases so far, and 11,157 deaths, far lower than what officials had feared. Now, officials worry complacency could undo that good fortune, as an economic divide emerges between the public when it comes to who is remaining vigilant.
Some 57% of Pakistanis say the virus threat is exaggerated, and 42% say it’s a foreign conspiracy, according to a December 2020 poll conducted by Gallup Pakistan.
Restrictions to curb the pandemic, dubbed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), are rarely followed.
At the bus station, passengers are supposed to sit socially distanced, wearing masks.
“We lose a lot of income when they are apart from each other, because only when the bus is full can we make a profit,” Kabir Ahmed Kiyani, the station’s manager, told Reuters.
In the port city of Karachi, where the first COVID-19 cases were reported nearly a year ago, restrictions on weddings and other public gatherings are being flouted. Authorities have limited the number of wedding guests and said festivities must take place in a window of a few hours, and face masks must be worn.
But no one is going to check on the wedding halls, and participants are opting to continue traditionally lavish parties instead, said Zobaida Qazi, a physician who has treated COVID-19 patients.
Elsewhere, Islamabad’s Deputy Commissioner Muhammad Hamza Shafqaat leads a team of police officers on a surprise inspection of a bustling upscale marketplace.
Shopkeepers usher out customers and hastily produce masks.
“Generally the people of the upper classes or upper middle class, they are somehow implementing the SOPs,” Shafqaat told Reuters. “But if you see people from the lowest strata, for them implementation of the SOPs is almost impossible, and for us it is also a huge challenge.”
Shafqaat said the city has handed out some 10 million rupees ($62,400) in fines and closed 800 businesses since the pandemic began.
Restrictions like closing schools and mosques could return if the case numbers go back up. However, he says there cannot be a complete lockdown, the country cannot afford it.
Convincing the general public that the pandemic is still a threat to be worried about remains a challenge in Pakistan.
“I believe that corona has finished. Corona may be present in government files, but on ground there is nothing; it is not a reality anymore,” said shopper Fayaz Ahmed in Islamabad.
(Production: Salah Uddin, Waseem Sattar, Sheree Sardar)