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Covid-19 threatens to cause a humanitarian crisis

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:



The coronavirus covid-19 pandemic is the defining global health crisis of our time and the greatest challenge we have faced since World War Two. Since its emergence in Asia late last year, the virus has spread to every continent except Antarctica. Cases are rising daily in Africa the Americas, and Europe.

Countries are racing to slow the spread of the disease by testing and treating patients, carrying out contact tracing, limiting travel, quarantining citizens, and cancelling large gatherings such as sporting events, concerts, and schools. The pandemic is moving like a wave-one that may yet crash on those least able to cope. But Covid-19 is much more than a health crisis. By stressing every one of the countries it touches, it has the potential to create devastating social, economic and political crises that will leave deep scars.

We are in uncharted territory. Many of our communities are unrecognizable from even a week ago. Dozens of the world’s greatest cities are deserted as people stay indoors, either by choice or by government order. Across the world, shops, theatres, restaurants and bars are closing. Every day, people are losing jobs and income, with no way of knowing when normality will return. Small island nations, heavily dependent on tourism, have empty hotels and deserted beaches. The International Labour Organization estimates that 25 million jobs could be lost.In Bangladesh where over 90% of workers are in the informal sector, health insurance is a luxury.

And most homes don’t have any sort of internet connectivity-how much more devastating would these policies be here? How many workers making 500 taka a day can work from home? For Bangladesh, let’s admit that Covid-19 is a humanitarian crisis with a public health dimension. If large-scale physical distancing is required, we must find ways to mitigate the economic shock that will bring the majority of the country into food insecurity within weeks. The urban poor, who live off their daily wages, will have to skip meals. Let’s find ways to keep people safe that also protect their livelihoods. If they absolutely must stay home, we will need to provide food or emergency cash transfers. Assuming that mobile money providers are able to keep their agents active during this time, we have a financial system that goes deep into the villages and could deliver money to almost every household. While there are important lessons to be learned from China, South Korea, Italy and other countries who are deeper into their Covid-19 response than we are, we should also question how much of their policies could be imported here. China’s health expenditure per capita is 10 times that of Bangladesh; Italy’s is eight times higher than China’s. Bangladesh has not escaped the economically disruptive Covid-19 pandemic that has upended health care systems around the world and claimed over 280,000 lives. The South Asian country has had nearly 15,691 confirmed cases and 239 known deaths since the first case was reported there on Mar.8.

On Mar.26, Bangladeshi authorities locked down 75% of the country in a bid to contain Covid-19. This immediately threw some 13 million people out of work with no fallbacks. The government relief program has provided rice at just $0.12 per kilogram, but desperately hungry people have been attacking the relief convoys. Others who asked for food handouts also suffered misfortunes, and some journalists who covered the misappropriation of food aid were attacked. Law enforcement agencies meanwhile went after hundreds of elected officials, ruling party members and suppliers for pilfering the cheap rice meant for the poor. By late April, the Press Infomation Department said that 35 million people had received food relief, and that cash transfers to 15 million were coming. In an already threadbare environment, frontline health workers are battling the disease with insufficient supplies and equipment. The exceptionally densely populated country is home to 170 million people, the vast majority Muslim, many of whom live in poverty. Bangladesh is also ranked the 14th most corrupt among 180 nations surveyed by Transparency International. In this setting, food security and income management have become more pressing issues than the spread of Covid-19. We need to think hard about an appropriate public response in a place as densely populated as Bangladesh, where most families’ ability to eat depends on daily wages and 87% of employment is generated by the informal sector.

The average household in Bangladesh has more than five members, and usually includes three generations. Families share one latrine and more than 80% of households living in slums share a water source with five or more other households. There is no way to separate the old and the young; in other words, to separate the productive adults from those whose age makes them more vulnerable to serious illness and death. To practice the social distancing norms that most Western countries have relied on to reduce transmission is proving to be culturally completely impossible here. How do you stock up on 30-day supplies when you can only buy a few days’ worth of food? What will you do after that food runs out if your income has been cut off? Bangladesh’s problems go beyond poor governance, and include the uneven distribution of industry. The country’s $300 billion-plus economy depends precariously on garments and textiles, which account for almost 12% of gross domestic product and 84% of exported merchandise. The apparel sector, second in size only to China’s, is now deeply troubled.The impact of the pandemic has been apocalyptic,” Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, told the Nikkei Asian Review.We are looking at six months of business being dwarfed by this pandemic to unimaginably reduced scales, job losses, and an inflated burden on the shoulders of the entrepreneurs,” she said. Garment exports saw a drastic decline in April, falling to $0.38 billion from $2.26 billion month on month.

Mostly women work in Bangladesh’s essential garment factories that were reopened in late April despite fears of Covid-19 contagion.The industry employs 4.1 million workers, mostly female, and was forced to cease operations during the government-ordered lockdown. Pushed by various garment industry lobbyists who feared orders could be diverted to Vietnam, thousands of clothing factories reopened on Apr. 26, flouting concerns about transmission of the virus. Most western high-street retailers selling Bangladeshi apparel demand deferred payment of up to 180 days, while factories carry a raw material liability of nearly $2 billion. With no clear visibility of orders to come, goods stuck in foreign ports, and buyers canceling finished goods, we have no assurances that we can depend on,” Huq told Nikkei. The sector that has long been the largest manufacturing employer in Bangladesh is teetering on the edge of a crisis. Foreign remittances, the second largest driver of the economy, are also threatened. Last year, over 10 million Bangladeshis working overseas sent home more than $18 billion about 6% of GDP. With the virus and collapsing oil prices, the World Bank expects remittances to fall back over 20% to about $14 billion this year. The International Monetary Fund has forecast that Bangladesh’s GDP growth will plunge to 2% this fiscal year, its deepest dive in decades. While I am worried, I also have endless faith in Bangladesh’s ability to rise in a moment of crisis. Even when outsiders see us as a basket case, we see an innovative path forward.

When global health experts said that Bengali mothers couldn’t make oral rehydration solution at home and we’d have to import packets of premade solution, which were heavy and difficult to transport to rural villages given the communications infrastructure in the 1980s, we taught families how to prepare lobon-gur (a mixture of local salt and unrefined sugar) and child mortality plunged. When people in villages were dying of tuberculosis because the hospitals were too far away, we found ways to bring testing and treatment to the community level.Covid-19 is new and different in important ways, but we are home to premiere public health experts and institutions. We have one of the world’s best networks of community health workers, a rich history of public-private partnerships in emergencies, and communities with incredible levels of resilience. We have weathered cyclones, floods, and so much more. Let’s not underestimate our own ability to find the best way forward in this crisis, to find the best in ourselves and make sure that we help each other survive this crisis.

Writer and Columnist