Rayhan Ahmed Topader:
This was as true during the first nationwide lockdown last year as it is on the eve of the second, discounting the recent farce of a lockdown imposed on April 5. What will happen to the poor and marginalised when the all-out, lockdown goes into effect and they are forced to stay indoors and wait out the second wave- provided that’s still the goal?However, the deadly virus seems to have brought to end everything. Though it may sound a little quixotic, things, developments and catastrophe due to this virus point to the very anticipation made above. First wave, second wave, third wave and more waves may be in the offing! Precious lives are being perished, livelihoods are being destroyed and lockdowns are, necessary though, making things all the more tough for many.This is such a quandary. Nobody seems to have any answer to this million dollar question: When will the virus stop or lessen its mayhem?During its first wave in Bangladesh one year back, there were casualties and losses in all respects, the middle class and the poor being the hard-hit. During its second wave in the running months, things have become all the more precarious in terms of infections, deaths, severities and bereavements. As there were series of lockdowns last year, many people belonging to various professions other than those of government and autonomous bodies suffered immeasurably owing to loss of jobs as well as terrible losses in businesses. Having lost sources of income, many people had to leave the capital and other major cities. Even during the longlockdowns in 2020, government had to leave out garments industries from restrictions for keeping the essential sector functional. Many criticised this step initially.
However, this very step turned out to be beneficial in the long run. Fortunately, then, corona infections did not turn out to be a serious concern in garments industries. Even during the recent lockdowns, garments industries have been kept out of the purview. For the people living in ivory tower, this might be a matter of discrimination. However, this decision must have been a pragmatic one given the importance of this sector as well as the sustenance of the workers in this huge sector.There is no denying that Bangladesh has progressed a lot during the last fifty years and economic advancement has been awesome during the consecutive regimes of the current government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. Number of rich people has increased exponentially in this country over time. As a result, lifestyle change and lavish lifestyle on the parts of many have been ostensible. Many people of the country have had luxurious second homes in abroad. In fact, a group of people has so much that they do not even find enough space to spend.16m become new poor in Bangladesh.SMEs worst victim of job losses due to pandemic.Over 3 percent of the labour force lost jobs while 16.38 million people became new poor amid the pandemic, according to a new study. The Small and Medium Enterprises and informal sectors saw the highest number of job losses, it said. Between March and September, last year, some 0.4 million migrant workers lost their jobs, added the report titled Recovery of the Labour Market during Covid-19: Role of Trade Union. Women-led enterprises were more vulnerable during the crisis and about 50 percent of those enterprises reported laying off 76-100 percent of their workers, it said.
It added that manufactu- ring, construction, transport, wholesale and retail businesses, food, accommodation services and personal services faced the highest risks while medium-high risk sectors included finance, domestic service, real estate, and education, and low-risk sectors included agriculture, health, information, and communication.About 69 percent of the employed population in urban areas was in high-risk.The pandemic has opened up business opportunities in a few sectors including e-commerce, health, and pharmaceuti- cals.The most affected workers’ groups were the labourers in urban areas engaged in construction informal services, rickshaw pulling, and launch and boat driving.Self- employed people like street vendors, hawkers, tea sellers, food stall owners and repairmen were also among the worst hit.The urban informal sector has lost about 1.08 million jobs, which was over 8 percent of total urban employment at the level of 2016-17 fiscal. Also low-income workers’ families confronted different types of financial difficulties like the inability to pay rent, unpaid utility bills, unpaid school fees and the inability to send money back to their village homes.Social safety net coverage, including direct cash transfers and food assistance to the poor, should be widely expanded. However, there is a critical political economy issue related to the management of this expansion, since the country spends very little on social protection as a percentage of GDP. Also, there are large loopholes in social protection programmes in the forms of leakage, corruption,wrong targeting and mismanagement.
Therefore, there is a need for strong efforts, especially in making the social protection programmes more effective through properly identifying poor and vulnerable populations,and ensuring that the support actually reaches them. As the poor are making intergenerational adjustments by rearranging their priorities to cope with the crisis, such as spending less on education, health and entertainment, they are sacrificing the prospects for better health, better education and a better life. Students from distressed families are likely to bear a higher burden of this impact, and many of these students may permanently be out of the education system.Therefore, non-conventional, urgent and targeted programmes are needed to address the agonies of students from these families.Occupational risks could be reduced by legal requirements for Covid-safe workplaces. Alongside this, enforceable rights to sick leave for precarious employees, self-isolation payments in line with the minimum wage, and workplace vaccination schemes with paid time off for vaccination could help reduce transmission. The Treasury could offer grants instead of loans or tax-linked amounts to the lowest rated businesses and self-employed, to support any businesses too risky to remain open.Household risks could be reduced by offering advice on safe behaviours in caring and domestic work; along with practical support. Stigma and racism need to be acknowledged within our national and local public services as direct drivers of unequal health outcomes. When local interventions are carried out, central and local communications should not identify, and therefore stigmatise, specific communities and their households as risky.
Finally, none of these measures can be achieved without greater community consultation and collaboration. This needs to be funded over the long term so that local authority outreach, community champion networks and third-sector organisations can flourish. After the unequal deaths of the pandemic, we need to rebuild through mutual recognition and equal provision of health for all.The government policy response related to current labour market challenges has remained weak and inadequate. The new poor, with highly disrupted engagements in the labour market, are not covered in existing social safety net programmes. Therefore, the government should introduce new social safety net programmes targeting the labour market. In this context, the employment guarantee scheme for a certain period of time for vulnerable populations can be seriously considered. The government should also form a Labour and Employment Commission to assess the current unprecedented situation and suggest necessary measures.There was a need for knowing all these answers through scientific studies at the local laboratories. The developed countries are too busy to pay attention beyond their own confines. If the causes behind the fresh spike of the disease are known, measures can be taken accordingly. That people have lowered their guards against the virus is unfortunate. Strict compliance with the health protocols is still the best guarantee against Covid-19.However, under the current crisis, even a low economic growth based on the revival of domestic economic activities can be robust, and it can lead to better distributional impacts during the recovery phase. Nonetheless, for better management of the Covid-19 crisis and for ensuring a robust path to economic recovery, there is a need to address institutional and governance-related challenges urgently.
Writer and Columnist