Dr AKM Nuruzzaman and Fariha Zaman Promi
COVID-19 has affected most of the people in this world directly or indirectly. There have been 19,005,651 reported cases and 711,864 deaths as of August 6, 2020. Most of the countries or some parts of those countries are under lockdown since January 2020. The spread of this virus started in Wuhan, China on December 2019. It spread all over the world within 3 months and is still spreading as death tolls are rising in many regions and countries. As we observe, among all affected countries, COVID-19 remains mostly controlled in South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Japan and even in China. There are some positive signs in other countries too. This is mainly due to some precautionary measures such as ‘personal hygiene’, ‘isolation’, ‘quarantine’, ‘lockdowns’ and ’social distancing’ taken to tackle the virus. However, there are have been some difficulties in implementing these methods in many countries. It is a unique experience for us. This unprecedented crisis is creating a lot of confusion, panic, despair and fear among people and communities. People who are involved in the informal economies and largely dependent on daily wages have suffered the most due to their income uncertainty and limited savings. They are largely poor, the most vulnerable to any catastrophe. These groups include marginalised occupational groups (e.g., day labourer, domestic help, beggar, sex worker and tea worker), demographically marginalised groups (e.g., elderly person, and street children), persons with disabilities (e.g., physically and intellectually disable), poor female headed households, geographically isolated groups (e.g., people living in char, haor, hilly and coastal areas) and other disadvantaged groups, such as hijra and ethnic minority groups. They are also the most vulnerable groups to coronavirus as they are facing difficulties in maintaining social distance and personal hygiene for many practical reasons. For example, many of them travel to join their families in villages, or are living in a congested environment in the urban areas, and often go out to search any kind of job as their savings are already finished.
Since the outbreak of corona virus in the country, the poor, the hard hit people, are demanding urgent social protection from the government for their survival. Many people are also talking about this in support of their demand considering its importance and urgency. The Government of Bangladesh has provided special stimulus packages for extremely poor families while open market sales initially were under operation in selected points of the country. While these programmes are being implemented at the grassroots level, there are some concerns (e.g., inappropriate listing and coordination challenges) that have already been raised by the media and other people. In particular, there has been an uproar about the inclusion of solvent people and repetition of same person time and again in the list. Even our honourable premier was informed about this and she, consequently, warned the perpetrators of zero tolerance against corruption from her side. There are still some questions --- how can we make an appropriate list of poor and vulnerable people for all areas of the country? How will we distribute those packages? Should we assess their challenges that they have already faced? We need to have answers of these questions. We do not have enough time. To have the quick responses, it requires an innovative approach and coordinated efforts from all corners of the society.
To make an appropriate list of poor and vulnerable people, we have to rely on the list of safety nets that are available in the union and upazila level. We can also check with local NGOs working in those areas. Dr. Zahid Hussain, the former World Bank Economist in Dhaka office, suggested BDT 3088 - 3235 and BDT 2135 - 2234 as reference points for the Upper Poverty Line (UPL) and the Lower Poverty Line (LPL) respectively. Along with proxy indicators (e.g., labour constraint households, female headed households, households with child labourer and households with disable members) these will help us to identify the poor and the extreme poor correspondently. He derived theses reference points from Bangladesh Household Income and Expenditure Survey (HIES) 2016. For sophistication, if resource and time permit, the government can ask Civil Registration and Vital Statistics Secretariat, Election Commission, ICT Ministry, a2i project and IT Firms to prepare union-based comprehensive data-based software with the unique ID, e.g., the national ID card. It will minimise the inclusion errors and overlapping. At the upazila level, a coordination committee can be formed. We can refer the instructions that are outlined in the Standing Orders on Disaster (SOD). Special arrangements need to be taken for those who are not living in their usual place as stated in their national IDs and for the floating people to avoid exclusion errors. It is to be noted that currently, many agencies, organisations and individuals are involved in relief and rehabilitation works at the local level. Coordination under the leadership of Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) between those actors is needed to avoid overlapping, maximise resource utilisation and promote better understanding of the complexity of the crisis. We can upload those data in the existing Bangladesh National Portal at the union level and hang the updated list in a visible place of the union for accountability and transparency. These data centres could be a hub for authentic information at the union level and used as a future reference.
By the way, the other long-term aspects of pandemic need to be taken into consideration as the efforts to reduce risk of a disaster should follow a process from preparedness to rehabilitation. Existing situation in rural Bangladesh could be exacerbated by some upcoming issues. First, many poor who used to live in towns had to go to their villages. The movement resulted in hassles and financial burden for the poor. Every single traveler from town to village and again, from village to town, might have different stories to tell. We might need those stories for future references. Second, foreign remittance is one of the most important sources of income for the country. It is anticipated that job markets in overseas will be quizzed. Many workers will lose their jobs. They might come back to Bangladesh and worsen the situation. Third, Bangladesh is disaster-prone country. We will also have to keep cyclones, floods and other disasters in mind. In addition, different cultural and religious practices, e.g., Eid celebration and prayers in congregations, also pose a great threat to human health in face of coronavirus.
Finally, we have to contain the spread of coronavirus by increasing test facilities and following other preventive measures. We have to do it to manage the dual-challenge, i.e., health crisis as well as economic crisis. Otherwise, we will not be able to cope with this pandemic with any sizable stimulus packages given our national financial capacity and thin chances of gaining external support as every country (poor or rich) is affected by this pandemic. This might reduce their capacity to offer additional resources to other countries if the lockdown is extended. As the economists are projecting, we will face the biggest recession since the Great Depression that took place ninety years ago, if the right steps are not taken in the upcoming months, which will affect almost every country in the world. We should also prepare accordingly.
Dr AKM Nuruzzaman is a social worker, currently working at Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF) as a General Manager while Fariha Zaman Promi is a candidate of the ‘Cambridge International Advanced Level Examination 2020’ from St Francis Xavier's Green Herald International School, Dhaka.