The impact of Covid-19 on Bangladesh
05 May 2020
In recent weeks I have interviewed several social movements activists and NGO campaigners in Bangladesh about the impact of coronavirus on their country. Many are fearful to speak publicly, especially to members of the foreign media and NGOs, about their concerns and views over their government’s approach to the pandemic.
According to a report from Human Rights Watch, the government of Bangladesh appears to have been cracking down on free speech since the middle of March 2020. Instead of providing accurate and timely information about the virus, the police are arresting people, including students, activists and even doctors, and charging them for spreading rumours and misinformation about the impacts of Covid-19 on the population. The Information Ministry is now using a draconian Digital Security Act to monitor social media and various television outlets for “rumours” about Covid-19 cases.
As a result, we have decided to withhold the names of the people who took part in these interviews, and their organisations, to protect them from possible arrest.
Bangladesh is a densely populated country with 170 million people. The majority (85%) of the 60.83 million employed workers in the country work in the informal sector. Out of this number, an overwhelming 92% are women. The Bangladeshi economy is being significantly impacted by the Covid-19 pandemic, which has led to a decline in national and global demand for manufactured goods, particularly in the garment sector. This will increase unemployment and deepen poverty. The urban poor will be hardest hit. More than 20 million people live in the capital city, Dhaka, which is now under lockdown.
Starvation defies lockdown
Like elsewhere, people in the lower income groups have been the most affected by the coronavirus pandemic and the lockdown. According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, of the 25 million workers who work on wages and salary, at least 10 million are dependent on their daily incomes. Despite the unavailability of transport after the lockdown was declared, thousands of desperate garment workers walked for miles to save their jobs. Many others just went out, driven by hunger and starvation, looking for food. The state-driven emergency food relief activities are limited. And it has become extremely difficult for many activist organisations to continue with their relief activities, starting from the second week of the lockdown.
Starvation among a very large portion of the population shows that a decade-long period of economic growth has failed to reach the Bangladesh’s most vulnerable people. The government has declared an $8 billion stimulus package (£6.36bn) or about 2.5% of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP). This will primarily go to industries, particularly export-oriented ones, and it is not clear how this will benefit the low-income groups, who are severely affected by the lockdown situation. Garment factory owners will receive $590 million (£468.7m) in low-interest loans.
Overwhelmed health system
There was no preparedness in the Bangladeshi health system despite the 2-month period since Covid-19 began spreading in Asia.
The additional pressure of the coronavirus pandemic has made things inevitable. There is a lack of sufficient numbers of tests. Due to lack of testing the number of people on record as testing positive doesn’t reflect the real situation. It seems that the government is also trying to hide the real numbers. Activists are calling the government policy a ‘No test-No Corona” policy.
Many doctors and nurses do not have personal protective equipment (PPE). A large number of doctors do not feel safe and secure to work in hospitals. Some doctors are being forced to treat suspected corona patients without any safety measures. An increasing number of nurses have already been found infected with Covid-19.
The government has ordered hospitals around the country to prepare Isolation units for corona patients. However, Bangladesh only has 500 ventilators and a few hundred ICU beds, which are now mostly already occupied. Many hospitals are turning away patients with Covid-19 symptoms.
Concerns for Rohingya refugees
To prevent the spread of coronavirus, Bangladesh has imposed a strict lockdown on Cox’s Bazaar, the southern district that is home to refugee camps housing more than a million Rohingya Muslims fleeing from Myanmar. No one is allowed to enter or leave.
Aid agencies are concerned that an outbreak there could overwhelm the poor medical facilities. Almost 750,000 Rohingyas arrived in the camps following a military crackdown in the neighbouring state in 2017.
Social movement responses and initiatives
The lockdown situation is making it difficult for social movements and NGOs to arrange meetings or other important events. Despite the difficulty of coordinating efforts, past experience of collective responses and organising has made it possible for groups to mobilise resources and do incredible relief activities. Volunteers can be seen in the streets, with proper safety attire and observing distancing measures. Many volunteers are from different youth organisations. Fundraising activities are held every day for food relief for poor people living in the capital city. The need is increasing, with more than a million garment workers losing their jobs in the first week of the lockdown alone.
Building international solidarity
Though the current circumstances are extremely uncertain and frightening to many, those who responded to the interview believe that the post-coronavirus pandemic world could provide opportunities to strengthen social movements and campaign groups in Bangladesh and their counterparts all over the world that are working for a greener and cleaner earth. It is exactly the right time to regenerate a different kind of politics for a socially just and ecologically sound future.
It is also the right time to re-connect with the critical academia and research organisations around the world to comprehensively problematise the structural flaws of the dominant growth-based development models, as well as to systematically identify the limits to economic growth. It is the right time for NGOs and civil society groups to build solid pressure on governments to adopt the alternative energy agenda being pushed by movements into the forefront of national planning. As part of this, we need to reconnect with both national and international activist networks to create coordinated efforts to build pressure on regional banks to withdraw finance from dirty energy that destroys forests and natural habitats, and results in health problems and pandemics.
This article is part of our interview series, Southern Perspectives on the Coronavirus Pandemic