Bangladesh has been combating the Covid-19 pandemic with limited financial resources and poor health infrastructure since March, 2020. The government has imposed several measures to curb the progression of the outbreak but those did not prove sustainable in the long run. However, the low infection rate is a matter of research despite 'failure' of lockdown. However, as a middle-income country, in the long run Bangladesh does not afford to keep the prolonged lockdown.
Last year, we saw the detrimental impacts of a nationwide lockdown in the wake of the Covid-19 outbreak, especially on low-income and subsistence workers and workers who were dependent on daily wages. Finally, the government has taken a bold decision to reopen the economic sectors despite opposition from different quarters.
The country has again been experiencing the sudden surge in Covid-19 cases since early March 2021. Healthcare officials and experts blame the surge in Covid-19 cases on people's reluctance to follow health safety guidelines. The government has imposed restrictions. But these cannot last forever without causing any damage to the national economy and compromising on people's resilience.
The health experts had different opinions about the lockdown enforced during the initial outbreak of the pandemic in March 2020. The lockdowns had proved completely ineffective in the country. Even, the zonal lockdown at East Raza Bazar and Wari last year left us with bitter experiences. "Imposing a lockdown is a foreign practice. We would never be able to implement it due to the sufferings of our own people," an expert said. "Rather the country can implement a local style of lockdown."
Dr Nazrul Islam, a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee, said the imposition of restrictions on the movement of people still remained a good idea considering the recent surge in cases. It would help reduce traffic after evening and proper monitoring could ensure wearing of masks by everyone. "For the time being, following the health rules at offices and homes is a must. Besides, we need to ensure institutional quarantine and isolation on a priority basis, as our experiences say that isolation at home is not possible."
The government took a hasty decision to halve the passenger capacity of public transport and hike bus fares by 60 per cent as part of the set of restrictions. No doubt during these difficult times the sufferings of ordinary people have mounted.
The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) said that export orders had fallen by 30-40 per cent due to the second wave of the pandemic in the West and buyers were creating pressure to promptly deliver the existing orders. Factories were facing order cancellations, suspension of spring/summer shipments, and reduced orders for autumn/winter season. They normally start working on autumn/winter orders from April onwards. The BGMEA continued to keep the factories open maintaining the health safety measures. Drawing experiences from the first Covid wave last year they hope to keep the Covid-19 infection rate below 0.03 per cent among RMG workers.
The James P. Grant School of Public Health has undertook an study to try and understand the needs of the population during Covid-19 on the poor, microbusiness owners, labourers, transport workers, informal sector employees and many other groups who depend on daily wages/earnings and have no social safety net. Although Bangladesh has achieved a lot over the recent decades, with improved availability of food due to increased production, 40?million people-one quarter of the population-remain food-insecure, and 11?million suffer from acute hunger.
BRAC's rapid perception survey on Covid-19 conducted between 31 March and 5 April 2020, for instance, found that 18 per cent and 10 per cent of urban and rural respondents, respectively, had no food stored at home, while 37 per cent and 21 per cent respectively had only 1-3 days' food reserve. This picture will worsen in the wake of the fallouts from the Covid-19 pandemic.
The poor and vulnerable already live on the edge. The added stress of the pandemic combined with prolonged shutdowns will amplify further their despair and hopelessness. In the context of Covid-19, the lockdown model is being imported from western or developed economies with stronger economic bases and better social safety nets for those in need. Those countries supported all small businesses and individuals with financial support for the period of lockdown. Bangladesh should find an alternate way of fighting coronavirus and keep the wheels of the economy in motion.
While health is a very real concern for Bangladesh to sustain amid the Covid-induced restrictions, all of us should focus all of the country's resources on ensuring that no one goes without food.
M S Siddiqui is a Legal Economist.