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Challenges and considerations in overpowering COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh

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Update: 2020-05-30 17:46:56
Challenges and considerations in overpowering COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh

After the independence in 1971, Bangladesh has suffered with numerous natural disasters, critical issues of governance systems, and development challenges. In turn, the country has bounced back from the situations strongly in most of the cases, and since the early 2000’s the country has made significant improvement in economic development indicators in South Asia. However, this is the first time the country is embracing the novel Corona virus (COVID-19) that is throttling the global economy as well. Since its appearance in the late 2019, COVID-19 has spread to almost 212 countries and territories across the world and have reported more than five million confirmed cases with a death toll crossed 0.33 million. Furthermore, countries across the world are struggling economically as it triggers slowing down the economy and introduced a pandemic-induced crisis. Several stock exchange offices experienced the plunge of markets. People of different professions losing jobs. With no exception, Bangladesh is facing an unprecedented crisis under this pandemic situation. Lack of adequate preparedness coupled with the dominance of informal economic sector in the economy certainly weaken the efforts of combating situation efficiently. Being one of the densest countries of the world, the government has taken several measures to avoid community spread of the virus. However, the initial thoughts of public health crisis has shifted the spotlight into a multidimensional humanitarian crisis in no time.

Upon looking at this past information of March and April 2020, most countries of the world are thus preparing to embrace an economic recession because of this pandemic. The scale of the economic impact of COVID-19 is only starting to become clear since the beginning of May, 2020, but effective government policy responses depend on realistic estimates of the depth and length of the recession. Two prominent international organizations; the World Bank Group (WB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) have demonstrated diverse scenarios of future economic issues based on checklists and assessment tools. The WB has stated few important short term (6 – 18 months) and long term (more than 2 years) measures for a proposed sustainable economic recovery; whilst, the IMF has attributed several social safety net programs along with the government fiscal policies. According to the IMF, the real GDP growth of Bangladesh is projected to decelerate to 2.0% in FY 2019-20 driven by falling readymade garment exports, lower private investment growth and wider disruptions due to COVID-19. These statistics does not look promising as mammoth tasks of assisting citizens to bounce back into new normal condition are lying ahead. However, the already deteriorated forecast may linger in 2021 and economic responses from the government should be strong enough to the hard-own progress of reducing poverty across the country.

Bangladesh will face a hard hit low-income people, especially informal workers in the hospitality and garments, retail trade, and transport sectors because of this pandemic. It is likely obvious that few lower income-earning population of the society has limited or almost no access to healthcare and social safety net programs. Note that, social safety net programs under the national social security strategy approved in 2015 in Bangladesh is contributing to the reduction of poverty and vulnerability by addressing a range of population groups through diverse assistance programs. These programs mainly confirm the efforts of food rationing and post-disaster relief aid distribution as common de facto. Moreover, the target groups of the social safety net programs engulf three major components according to UNDP research initiative literature, such as: (i) household does not posses any land or a minimal possession up to 10 decimals; (ii) average income per person per day below BDT 30.00 (43 US cents); (iii) a financial profile where debts exceed savings by an average of around 2500.00 BDT (US$36); (iv) a greater presence of disadvantaged members such as vulnerable women; and (v) about a quarter of households have members participating in micro finance institution. Consequently, the lower income group people have few resources in hand to spend for their health care as soon as the pandemic is over. Also, the farmers in the agricultural sector will skirmish hard to return back in their own business without little or no resources in hand to invest further.

Considering the issues of economic impacts, and ongoing economic downturn that all the countries are suffering for; Governments of Bangladesh (GoB) may focus in some key areas for the short term recovery measures in order to bring back economy into the right track after the COVID-19 pandemic. Those initiatives are not only limited to the following measures only:

(i) Employment opportunities should be created soon after the pandemic is over. Opportunities should be inclusive in nature, such as: gender-balanced, available to under-employed and for vulnerable population groups. Note that, 83% of the revenue that Bangladesh makes through exports are linked to the garments industries, a total of more than $32 billion USD each year. For instance, bring people back in work and create more jobs in this sector will be the first priority for the GoB;

(ii) Introducing economic activities should be in place immediately after the pandemic. According to the World Economic Forum, only 15% of Bangladesh’s population makes more than 500 Taka (US$ 5.90) a day. Moreover, 10 million rickshaw drivers, day laborers, factory workers, maids, and other raced to get home because of the shut down announce by the government on March 26, 2020. Thus, government interventions are required to increase export and necessary import activities (e.g., raw materials for medicine and necessary goods);

(iii) Stick with a definitive timeline for future budget allocation and income generating activities should be incorporated in identified sectors. As noted in the month of April 2020, Prime Minister has announced the allocation of Taka 21.3 billion under housing scheme for the homeless, Taka 7.5 billion for poor people having lost their jobs as a result of pandemic, Taka 7.5 billion to provide health insurance for government employees most at risk, and Taka 1 billion bonus payment for government doctors. Moreover, Ministry of Finance has announced a Taka 50 billion (approximately USD 588 million) stimulus package for exporting industries to be channeled through a refinance scheme operated by Bangladesh Bank. If any exception happens in distribution of such packages, probably some of the economic sectors will not be able to bounce back even in the long run;

(iv) Keep continuing social assistance should be an obligatory procedure. Cash transfer to the vulnerable groups (approximately to 5 million people) has started already to boost up living condition across the country with an amount of 2500 BDT (approximately 30 USD) since May 14, 2020. Additionally, benefits under the key safety net programs will be increased in near future (the amount is not yet decided) along with the food subsidies included selling rice at Taka 5/kg through open market sale, down from Taka 30/kg. Thus, the social safety nets programs should be expanded and continued (e.g., health accessibilities, rent allowance in the first month, etc.);

(v) Assisting the farmers should be a priority and continued during and after the pandemic. Less food production may hinder the food security of the country and thus emergency cash flow is required for the sustenance of marginal farmers. Bangladesh Bank (BB)(the central government bank) has already introduced a scheme amounting a total of 380 billion Taka to support exporters, farmers and to facilitate the implementation of the government stimulus package. Additionally, the BB has introduced a policy framework to repay the loans received by farmers with an interest of 1% (banks) and 3.5% (Micro Credit Financial Institutions) to be received a grace period of 1 to 2 years. Thus, it may be required by the government to initiate cash flow to the marginal farmers quickly so that they can start producing their part to enhance food security;

(vi) Market control mechanism is an intrinsic impetus for pricing that fails to account for externalities. Emergency lifeline is required globally including Bangladesh for higher spending and foregone revenue (approximately $3.3 trillion globally), public sector loans and equity injection (around $2.7 trillion globally). Typically, Bangladesh may have less room to respond to this situation by providing immediate budget response. A steep drop in demand from abroad for their goods and services (i.e., garments in particular), plunging commodity prices, capital flight, and higher borrowing costs in financial markets may come up front as a critical challenge;

(vii) Students will be returning back to schools after this pandemic with lots of anxiety and uncertainty. In Bangladesh, it is obvious that some students may struggle to pay their education related fees and may worry about getting back to life as usual with economic anxiety. In this context, government may try to identify pupils in need for relief aid and mental anxiety improvement measures to boost up learning attitude and motivation; 

(viii) One of the challenges remain after the pandemic is over and its implication in the transportation sectors. It is critical to introduce an acceptable physical distance in the public transportation systems everywhere for restricting the community spread of the novel corona virus. However, a high density country like Bangladesh may spread the virus in the second wave if the community spread starts through the public transits. As a result, the government may be interested to introduce pedestrianization and bicycling opportunities for the city dwellers mostly in major cities. 

(ix) The health sector of the country demands a significant improvement in order to ensure health services for all. Several initiatives have been incorporated already, such as, employing more doctors (approximately 2000 new doctors in the public sector), supplying more personal protective equipment (PPE) to the frontline workers, and confirm necessary cash flow as required. However, lack of coordination among line ministries and major health-sector’s stakeholders (e. g, clinics, hospitals, community health workers, specialized treatment and institutions, etc.) may lead to an unmanageable condition of this aforementioned pandemic.

Most of the countries are easing lockdowns and in Bangladesh it is really difficult to enforce a very effective one due to not only population density in Dhaka, but also for many other socio-economic reasons. Thus, finding a way to live with the virus has become critical. As of now, reasonable options out are to use more testing, accurate tracing and isolation. Contact tracing application can be viable strategy in this regard which is being tested already in many countries including Europe. Bangladesh must cooperate with countries like UK, Germany, USA and global ICT organizations like Google and Apple who are working on this tracing app so that Bangladesh can be an early user.

At the end, it is important to mention that the pandemic is offering us to rethink our development strategies, reorganizing our policies, and preparing for future approached ahead of time to safeguard the people and humankind. Moreover, the lesion we have learned from this pandemic may encourage all of the citizens to think critically and act in a collaborative fashion to ensure safety for all. 

1. Dr. Khan Rubayet Rahaman is an Assistant Professor, Department of Geography and Environmental Studies, St. Mary’s University, Halifax, NS Canada; can be reached at [email protected]
2. Dr. Md. Taibur Rahman is a development planner, a civil servant of Bangladesh, currently working in UNDP Bangladesh on lien; can be reached at [email protected]

BDST:  1746 HRS, MAY 30, 2020

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