The impact of the pandemic continues to be visible in every aspect of human life. With the new wave of COVID-19, the marginalised communities are most at risk. A recent study titled "Marginal Communities in Bangladesh: Dealing with Pandemic Fallouts", conducted by the Citizen's Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh, aims to understand the extent to which they were affected by the pandemic. The study was based on information collected through face to face survey of about 1600 households across Bangladesh which covered 10 marginalised groups. The study explores the health-related, economic and other social challenges faced by the marginalised groups due to the pandemic. These groups are already prone to many vulnerabilities, so what new vulnerabilities they were susceptible to during the pandemic era must be examined.
The marginalised groups selected for the survey were from char, haor, coastal, and slum areas, people of Dalit and indigenous communities, persons with disabilities (PWD), migrants and Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) workers. About 59 per cent of the sample was from the urban population and the rest 41 per cent from the rural. The knowledge endowment of the households in marginalised communities is noticeably low. Pre-COVID average incomes of these communities, excluding the migrant workers and MSME, were considerably low despite a larger than national average number of family members being engaged in income-generating activities. This indicates the lower monthly return of their labour. Their political, social and non-governmental network is also found to be weak.
INCIDENCE OF COVID-19 IN THE SAMPLE: Among the sample of 7379 people, 36 per cent showed some form of COVID symptoms. However, only 1.8 per cent of them went for a test, and the majority of them opted for the public testing facilities. When asked why they didn't get tested, 70 per cent replied that they didn't feel the need and only 12 per cent cited financial constraint as a reason. One comforting prospect is 82 per cent of the people have shown interest in taking the government provided vaccine free of cost.
ECONOMIC IMPACT ASSESSMENT: In 70.3 per cent of the surveyed households, at least one member had lost job or had to temporarily cease working due to COVID-19. 94 per cent of the household engaged in MSME faced some form of job loss. Interestingly most of these people were able to secure some work after some time, but it could not completely recover their loss or match their earlier income. In char areas, monthly income dropped by 21.1 per cent after covid. It has dropped by 14-18 per cent in other marginalised groups. People tried to cope by decreasing their expenditure which compromised their standard of living. About 60-70 per cent of the marginalised households experienced a decline in savings. 86 per cent households in the coastal areas, 87.3 per cent households in slums and 88 per cent of the persons with disabilities have faced financial hardship due to COVID-19. Incomes of the households were not sufficient to afford their current expenditures.
COPING STRATEGIES: The most common coping mechanism of these marginalised people was to cut down on food expenses which later continued to non-food expenses. 60.8 per cent of the households took loan to mitigate the financial crisis. Financial support from private and non-government sources helped to a certain extent. Furthermore, people broke into their savings and sold assets to cope with the situation. In adjusting food intake, people reduced the number of items in their meals, especially the protein items. Some had to skip a meal altogether to manage. Moreover, about 10 per cent of the households had to compromise with their baby food consumption.
In char areas, 21 per cent of the household had to encash some form of savings. For migrants, the average withdrawal of savings per household was more than one lac BDT. With the current savings rate, it may take about 4-8 months for these marginalised households to restore the previous level of savings. The major instrument of savings withdrawal was cash deposit, and the rest was bank deposits and NGO deposits comprising only 25 per cent. The study indicates that the institutional savings mechanism was quite inadequate for these marginalised groups.
A significant number of households took loans to tackle the COVID-19 crisis, which may require about 1.5-3 years to repay for these communities. 50-60 per cent of the households in haor, coastal, slum and Dalit communities have taken loans. The highest number of borrowing incidents were in the MSME group with an average loan of 67,226 BDT per household. NGOs, peers and relatives were the key sources of loans. Only 3.4 per cent of the loans were taken from banks which again signifies institutional incapability.
The tendency of withdrawing savings and borrowing evidently spiked after the lockdown in April 2020. There was another surge during Eid-ul-Fitr, and four months later during the Durga puja season, some households still needed help to recover from the wreckage of COVID-19. In 95 per cent of the cases, the households used these loans for consumption smoothing. Apart from it, there were incidental expenditures, e.g., for a festival, non-regular medical treatment, durables, marriage etc. Some households had to take new loans to pay back previous loans.
ROLE OF EXTERNAL SUPPORT: 84.1 per cent of the people living in the slums opined that they needed external support. However, 45 per cent of the households did not receive any help from the government or non-state actors. Among those who have received external support, 37 per cent was from the government, and 42 per cent was from NGOs, family, friends, neighbours and charities. Here it is evident that non-government sources were able to provide more aid to the marginal communities than the government.
A breakdown of the government support received by these groups shows the prevalence of food assistance which was received by 61 per cent of the households. Only 16 per cent of households in our survey received cash assistance, while 19 per cent received safety equipment (PPE, masks).
THE EXTENT OF MULTIPLE SHOCKS: Covid-19 is not the only catastrophe Bangladesh faced last year. Besides the aftermaths of cyclone Amphan, there was a longstanding flood, both of which affected many of the marginal communities. The char, haor and coastal areas were devastated by multiple shocks last year owing to their vulnerable geographical position. During the flood and Amphan, the households mostly received in-kind support such as food assistance.
ROLE OF LOCAL INSTITUTIONS: 50-60 per cent of the households expressed their dissatisfaction with the local institutions. They thought local political leaders, administrative offices and civil society could play a better role in fulfiling their responsibilities during the pandemic.
SOCIO-ECONOMIC FALLOUTS: From the survey, a clear image of the impact on law and order condition after the pandemic breakout could not be derived as the individual opinions largely varied area-wise. Some opined incidents of theft and robbery increased due to the pandemic, while some expressed the opposite. However, about 28 per cent of the households stated that they spotted various forms of social conflicts like violence against children, women, the elderly and other vulnerable groups.
STATE OF RECOVERY AND HH PERCEPTION: A slight silver lining in the survey was that 21 per cent of the households were able to recover from the losses within 5-6 months, which indicates some signs of recovery. However, there remains about 80 per cent of the households who have not recovered yet. Before the current second wave, they thought they could recuperate within a year or two if everything remained stable. Indeed, the new wave of COVID-19 will make such recovery more challenging.
CONCLUDING OBSERVATIONS: The economic impact of COVID-19 and multiple natural disasters have been far deeper compared to the health and social impacts. A large number of marginalised people have been trapped in the burden of loans which is likely to get worse with the present surge of COVID-19 cases and subsequent restrictions. Among the ten marginalised groups, MSME, PWD, Slum and Char are found to be more susceptible in terms of economic impacts.
Till date, coverage of government support for these marginalised communities has not been adequate. It is time for the government to forge a partnership with the NGOs in tracing and delivering support inputs to them. In view of the recent surge of the pandemic in Bangladesh, a Social Solidarity Fund for COVID-19 (based on public-private partnership and with real-time digital reporting) needs to be considered at the earliest. Fiscal allocations by the government should go beyond the social safety net programmes in the upcoming national budget while incentives for corporate and private donations may be put in place.
The government has to tailor medium-term public policy supports for the marginalised groups based on their specific distresses and requirements. Their health and social issues need to be addressed as well as their economic needs. The last one year's experiences and lessons should be the guide for the design and implementation of future public support programmes for the pandemic affected marginalised communities.
This op-ed provides a summary of the key findings of the study titled "Marginal Communities in Bangladesh: Dealing with Pandemic Fallouts" conducted by the Citizen's Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh. The authors of the study report are: Debapriya Bhattacharya, Convenor, Citizen's Platform for SDGs, Bangladesh and Distinguished Fellow, CPD; (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Towfiqul Islam Khan, Senior Research Fellow, CPD; Estiaque Bari, Senior Lecturer, East West University; Fahim Subhan Chowdhury, Senior Research Associate, Centre for Entrepreneurship Development (CED), BRAC University; and Sarah Sabin Khan, Senior Research Associate, CPD.