Of the manifold fallouts of the Covid-19 pandemic, the rise in poverty, especially rural poverty, is particularly an unfortunate development. More so in the backdrop of success in the reduction of poverty rates during the last two decades. In absence of any statistics obtainable from a field-level survey and going by the well thought-out projections by some eminent policy think tanks and research bodies, the present poverty figure could be ranging from 35 to 40.9 per cent.
Though such regression may not prove to be long-lasting, given the exceptional circumstances under which it has happened, there is an urgent need for the economy to be put back on the rails. That is for the simple reason that the pandemic has still not shown any sign of abating, not only across the landscape of Bangladesh, but also globally; in some places its intensity is even registering a rising trend. In this context, it is hardly possible to make a dependable prediction about when the economy might return to normality. Even if by some stroke of good luck things turn for the better public health-wise within the span of a few months, it may still take a far longer time to bring the economy back to where it was just before the pandemic. But that does not mean throwing up our hands with an attitude of resignation or being fatalistic about it. For, livelihood demand creation and productivity are naturally linked and mutually reinforced dynamics. At any rate, the forces of demand and supply will have a momentum of their own, making the economy come alive.
Under the circumstances, the best option before the government would be to assess the situation on the ground, especially in the countryside and take urgent measures to regenerate the rural economy and create employment through increased public investment. It is worthwhile to note here that the surplus rural labour created due to mechanisation in agriculture will also be required to be absorbed through this government measure.
At the same time, it will also be necessary to expand the scope of the social safety net schemes to accommodate the swelling ranks of the vulnerable group of the people with the added influx of the returnees from the cities. In this sphere, the government has set some examples which need to be replicated. However, strong monitoring of whether the social security fund is reaching the intended recipients would be necessary to avoid misuse of the precious public money.
As the rise in rural poverty has been sudden, there will admittedly be scarcity of reliable data in the government's hand on this changed poverty scenario. To overcome this shortcoming, the government need to rely on local government and community level leaders, who have a first-hand knowledge of, say, the number of households with their breadwinners rendered jobless, or the new arrivals from the cities facing similar condition of unemployment.
However, the role of the local leaders will be more than just helping the administration to identify the rural unemployed or the socially vulnerable ones. They will be required to look after, among other things, the children of the poverty-stricken families, including the returnees from the cities ensuring that they do not fall victim to the twin curse of child marriage and child labour.