Between pandemic and poverty

With the shutdown lingering on, more people are going to bed hungry than in the pre-virus period

April 11, 2020 10:20 pm | Updated December 03, 2021 06:31 am IST

A Bangladeshi man wearing a facemask pulls a bike cart during government imposed shutdown during the COVID-19 outbreak, in Dhaka on April 6.

A Bangladeshi man wearing a facemask pulls a bike cart during government imposed shutdown during the COVID-19 outbreak, in Dhaka on April 6.

Imam Hossain, a construction worker in southern Bangladesh, is marooned at home for most of the day due to the coronavirus shutdown. With no significant work on hand, he worries about his family of four as his small savings are fast depleting. Mr. Hossain, 50, sometimes ventures out for work, beyond the prying eyes of law enforcement, when he receives a call from his neighbours.

Local authorities have blocked the major roads and bridges through the area with logs or fences, disrupting the supply chain for home-building materials. “I’m just waiting for the shutdown to end,” Mr. Hossain told this reporter by phone from a remote, impoverished village in the southern district of Pirojpur. “I didn’t receive any government relief, nor did I ask for it. I don’t even know who to ask.”

The power of the coronavirus to create an upheaval in people’s lives depends largely on their income in a country with about one out of four people still living in poverty. Mr. Hossain’s condition illustrates quiet, anonymous moments of near-starvation among a large swathe of the working poor.

In an effort to limit the spread of the virus, Bangladesh has extended the shutdown to April 25. The country has so far reported over 480 infections and 30 deaths. The shutdown caused economic pain for the daily wage-earners. Before the restrictions came into force in late March, many workers left Dhaka, moving away from the potential hotspot into seemingly safer zones.

Last week, the workers, mostly employed in the garment industry, rushed back to workplaces to save their jobs amid a fog of information over factory shutdown. The images of desperate workers continuing their long journey on foot or on crowded river ferries came as a shock at a time when social distancing is being enforced by the government. Workers now face the grim prospect of employment drought in the garment industry that counted $3.11 billion in cancelled or suspended orders as the coronavirus roiled demand in the U.S. and Europe.

Empathy in times of crisis

While details of hardship abound, there is more to the story: community efforts have started to trickle in.

Mohammad Baharul Alam, a Dhaka resident, stepped in with food parcels for the poor by mobilising family, friends and colleagues behind his initiative. He started off with 50 parcels a day in the immediate aftermath of the virus outbreak and then steadily increased the number to 70. “My wife was a bit sceptical about it and asked me what will happen if the supply of food dries up. I assured her that we’ll be fine and I pressed on. My friends stood by me.”

It’s not just the poor who are suffering during the shutdown. There are some “middle-class” families suffering in silence. Mr. Alam devised a way out for those families and assigned a group of night-time volunteers to carry food to their doorstep. “They can’t express the problems they are facing due to the lockdown,” Mr. Alam, who works at the World Bank’s Dhaka office, wrote in a Facebook post. His community effort stems from Tripto Foundation, a non-profit organisation he founded for destitute girls in 2018.

Meanwhile, the government rolled out a 727.5-billion-taka stimulus package, equivalent to 2.5% of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product, to cushion the impact of the coronavirus. In a media briefing on April 5, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina noted the potential implications of the virus on low-income groups and warned of deepening economic costs in the days to come. Fiscal packages and low-cost loans for businesses, including small and medium enterprises, will be prioritised in an effort to limit the economic fallout. Social safety net programmes will be expanded to ensure the basic needs of people living below the poverty line, said Ms. Hasina.

But questions loom over whether the amount of government aid is enough to offset the colossal damage wrought by the disease. In a report, Fitch Solutions said government aid in the form of cheap loans would do little to alleviate depressed economic activity in Bangladesh.

As the fallout of the shutdown pans out, more people are going to bed hungry than in the pre-virus period. Social distancing is a luxury not everyone can afford. Mr. Hossain will probably be forced to go out looking for work in his neighbourhood if the shutdown lingers. In parts of the country, many scramble for relief distributed by the government, but people like Mr. Hossain will suffer in silence. For them, one hope is the community effort, as espoused by Mr. Alam, who sends packets of food to their homes after dark.

Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka

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