Covid-19 has rapidly spread around the world impacting economies, healthcare systems and daily life. The challenges that it poses are real and consequential. To help policymakers and donors better understand the impact on Asia’s social sector, CAPS (virtually) sat down with our partners across the region to understand the challenges they are grappling with, the strategies they are employing to contain the fallout and their take on the future of the social sector.
To discuss the impact in Bangladesh, we spoke to Dr. Fahmida Khatun – Executive Director of the Centre for Policy and Dialogue (CPD) on 22 May, followed by an update in August 2020. Established in 1993, CPD is a leading institution for in-depth research and dialogue to promote inclusive policy-making in Bangladesh and strengthen regional and global economic integration.
CAPS: Dr. Fahmida, thank you for taking the time to speak to us today. How is Bangladesh coping with Covid-19?
CPD: The government of Bangladesh started taking precautions back in February by, for example, isolating those coming back from abroad. At the time, people were not too concerned and measures were not strictly enforced. Testing kits were also lacking. It is when we started testing in early-March that the first cases were identified on 8 March and policy began to mirror the seriousness of the situation. Huge celebrations planned for the centennial birthday of the Father of the Nation (Bangladesh’s founder) were scaled down. On March 26, the government announced a lockdown.
Our healthcare system struggled in the beginning. There were not enough testing facilities and kits—only one hospital had testing capability. But now testing kits and facilities are more widely available, and more hospitals are better equipped to handle the pandemic.
Initially, there were also coordination problems among various government ministries, forcing the Prime Minister to step in. She bypassed the ministers and gave responsibility for coordinating Covid response in each district to the secretaries.
CAPS: For most countries Covid was a health crisis first, with economic aftershocks following. Has it been the other way around for Bangladesh?
CPD: Yes, by the time the lockdown was imposed in Bangladesh the global supply chain had already been disrupted. We were already feeling the impact of reduced tourism as well as the reduced import and export of raw materials and intermediate goods.
The garment industry is our biggest industry, accounting for almost 80% of exports. With many overseas buyers already in lockdown by March, demand for garments had already declined. The Bangladeshi Garment Manufacturers Export Association (BGMEA) estimated the amount of export cancelations at US$3 billion. It appealed to buyers not to cancel their orders but to defer payment, which some countries like Sweden have honored.
Agricultural output has also suffered. Despite bumper output this year, harvested crops were not able to reach markets due to the lockdown. Not only did farmers lose income, food prices became inflated due to scarcity.
On the labor side, about 85% of the total Bangladeshi labor force works in the informal sector who earn daily wages. Many of them have lost their livelihoods since the outbreak. According to our estimates, more than 5 crore (50 million) individuals require support.
CAPS: How is the government helping those in need?
CPD: Till now the government has rolled out two stimulus packages. The first stimulus of TK 5,000 crore (around US$590 million) for export-oriented sectors was announced on 25 March 2020, followed by a second stimulus of TK 67,750 crore (around US$7.98 billion) on 5 April. Most of this support is in the form of loans for large industries, the services sector, small and medium enterprises (SMEs), and farmers.
The government is also expanding the existing social safety net to support vulnerable people—those who have lost their jobs, informal workers and the elderly—through cash transfers, open market sale and food distribution. Experts and representatives of non-government organizations (NGOs) are calling for direct cash transfer rather than food distribution, as the former is less susceptible to misappropriation. However, although we have a large social protection system many people remain excluded, and a more comprehensive list of those in need of support is required.
CAPS: Are BRAC and other big NGOs working with the government to support those in need?
CPD: BRAC has been working on Covid-19 response since the beginning of the outbreak mostly independently from the government. BRAC has also been providing direct transfers to those in need, including the urban poor who are usually excluded from the government initiatives. They have done a great job in terms of identifying the urban poor and providing support to them and creating awareness of their needs.
CAPS: We have seen a lot of community initiative across Asia. Is this also the case in Bangladesh?
CPD: Yes, there has been lots of support from the community. Families, neighbors, friends, NGOs are providing support with whatever means they have. Many small and medium–sized organizations that may have focused on education or community work or microfinance are redirecting resources to address the Covid-19 crisis. One example is Bidyanondo, a small voluntary nonprofit organization, which has provided food aid to more than a million families across the country between April and May of this year.
CAPS: How are you at CPD coping with the crisis?
CPD: We are primarily supported by development partners, almost all of which have shifted their work to Covid-19 related work. We are managing for now but we will have to supplement our income by bidding for procurement contracts and consultancy. The funding space for the NGOs and CSOs (civil society organizations) is shrinking and many organizations will be in trouble, especially those who are fully dependent on donor income.
CAPS: What lies ahead for Bangladesh?
CPD: The people in Bangladesh are resilient. But this is a crisis like no other. We have overcome cyclones, floods, and other natural disasters before, but those incidents were focused and only concentrated in one area. This is all over the country; the scale is massive and unprecedented. People are surviving, somehow. But the support offered to the poor is less than what is needed and so much more needs to be done.