The third edition of the Bangladesh Economics Summit organised by the Economics Study Center (ESC) kicked off on September 12, 2020 with the theme "The Impact of COVID-19: Exposing the Fault Lines of Bangladesh Economy". This year's events include panel discussions, public lectures, research paper presentations, policy debates-- all of which are designed to engage academicians, policy-makers, and young economists in discourse and share the platform to explore the solutions to the underlying problems. Due to the pandemic situation, all the events are being held on Zoom, a virtual meeting platform, which are also broadcast live on Facebook.
The summit started with a panel discussion on the topic "Governance Failure and Corruption: Impediment towards Tackling COVID-19". The session was chaired by Dr Selim Raihan, professor of Economics, University of Dhaka. Amongst the panellists were Professor Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD); Dr Kazi Maruful Islam, professor of Development Studies, University of Dhaka; and Dr Ahsan H Mansur, executive director, Policy Research Institute (PRI).
Dr Selim Raihan started the session by emphasising the need to understand the relationship between state and business, the role of non-elites, and their interaction with the elites. "Corruption is a symptom of a bigger problem which involves three major institutional challenges- the supremacy of dealmaking over formal regulations, the inefficiency of the regulatory body, and weak state capacity," said Dr Raihan.
Professor Mustafizur Rahman drew attention to the shortcomings of the growth-centric development paradigm of Bangladesh in this COVID-19 situation. "COVID-19 is a test for us that has put us in a three-dimensional crisis of health, economic, and humanitarian risk, which we cannot solve without addressing the underlying issue of poor governance", he said.
Dr Kazi Maruful Islam explained the inadequacy in tackling the COVID-19 situation from a political point of view. In his opinion, it is not merely a management issue, rather it stems from the lack of transparency and competition in the election process of public offices. Although a transparent election may not necessarily lead to a corruption-free government as we have seen in the past but it is a precondition for eradicating corruption. "When the means and the ends both are corrupted, it is pointless to expect reform and good governance," said Dr Islam.
Dr Ahsan H Mansur, the final speaker of the panel remarked that it is a general trend that the party in power wants to stay in power and grab more power. This motivates the government to undermine the authority of institutions and compromise with many state players. Even if the government wants reform, it falls short due to the lack of political will and even authority in some cases. "If we truly want to reform, we have to establish meritocracy and accountability in our system," said Dr Mansur.
On the second day of the summit, a public lecture was conducted by Dr Ahmed Mushfiq Mobarak, professor of Economics at Yale University, on the topic "Economic Effects of COVID-19 in Low and Middle-Income Countries." Dr Mobarak gave a brief overview of his work during the pandemic and stated that in most countries COVID-19 will soon turn into an economic crisis from a public-health crisis and this will have a severe impact on the global structure. He mentioned that epidemiological models and their connections with economic factors have played a significant role in his work and emphasised the use of existing data to ensure social protection.
Dr Mobarak discussed in detail about the epi-economic modelling and the research thought process. When the idea of flattening the curve came in from the Imperial College Model, developed countries like the US tried to minimise the case fatality rate by physical distancing and providing reliefs based on tax returns. However, it was inapplicable for developing countries like Bangladesh and Indonesia where only two to four per cent of the population are taxpayers. Thus, he urged to incorporate economic factors and data from low-income countries to the existing model instead of developed countries.
Y-RISE, an initiative founded by Dr Mobarak, and a2i collaborated in data mapping at the regional level to develop comprehensive COVID-19 socio-economic data. By doing so, it was revealed that migrant families as a whole are suffering from lack of food security and are earning 36 per cent less than non-migrant households. The income of non-migrant households also declined by 31 per cent due to the pandemic.
Dr Mobarak concluded his lecture by showing that even though the rate of mask purchasing has increased, only 11 per cent of Bangladeshi people are currently wearing them properly. He urged the government to take stern actions to implement consistent use of masks in Bangladesh.
On the third day of the summit, a panel discussion was held on the topic "Exploiting Nature: Root Cause for Pandemics and Climate Disasters". The session was chaired by Dr MM Akash, chairman, Department of Economics, University of Dhaka. The panel included Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad, chairman, Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation; Dr Ainun Nishat, professor emeritus, BRAC University; Dr AK Enamul Haque, professor of Economics, East West University.
Dr Enamul Haque started the discussion by saying that aiming at poverty reduction has deprioritised the environmental sector. He also focused on high rates of air pollution that might increase the chance of spreading COVID-19. "We have to look for our faults rather than looking for a scapegoat to blame on," he said.
"This pandemic situation wouldn't have reached such a severe condition if we had strict monitoring in airports and international land ports," said Dr Ainun Nishat. He also focused on problems related to ecosystems like the higher rate of saltiness in coastal soil, the increasing frequency of tidal surge, lack of pure drinking water and others.
Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad focused on the carbon emission issue and how it might be controlled, and how strict laws can help us to fight this battle of preserving the environment. "Nature is for all species and nature always tries to save all its species. So, sometimes in reply to all the human tortures, it comes up with a natural remedy," he said. He added that due to deforestation, animals lose their habitats and they come in contact with humans and many diseases spread.
Professor MM Akash concluded the discussion by mentioning how the expansion of neo-liberalism in the international front might jeopardise the entire environmental movement. "Without focusing on the faults within governance, we cannot successfully achieve the climate action goals," said Dr Akash.
The summit will be concluded on September 19 following the launch of a study report authored by the Economics Study Center (ESC) titled 'Assessing the Fault Lines of Bangladesh's Healthcare Sector: Implications for Future Policy Response'.
The writer is a third year undergraduate student at the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka. He can be reached at [email protected]