The Financial Express

Covid-19, indifference and premonitions

Covid-19, indifference and premonitions

When Bangladesh could comfortably claim that it was on way to becoming self-sufficient in food production, eying graduation to the group of middle-income countries, a bolt from the blue struck it. It came in the form of the Covid-19 pandemic. The rest is part of world news centring round a pervasive gloom that spread to all parts of the globe. Unlike many countries, the hard time Bangladesh fell on did not comprise the dreadful pandemic only.

What had baffled the country was the lighting speed of the pandemic, beginning in the first week of March in 2020. Though primarily centred in the capital Dhaka, its fast pace of spread, coupled with the government's jitters leading to a few knee-jerk preventive steps, ended up being a mess. Meanwhile, the demon of Covid-19 made its insidious entry into Bangladesh. But most of the city-residing people wore a reckless or nonchalant attitude towards the snowballing scourge. In order to stem the approach of the hitherto-unknown virus-borne and highly communicable dread, the authorities opted for a shutdown. The so-called order of no movement outside and stay-at-home stretched from one week to an indefinite period. It bore few results.

It was in the later part of the year that disruptions caused to food processing and food supply nearly completed a cycle. Ironically all this occurred despite impressive harvests of the food crops. The farmers in villages developed the conviction that the rural areas would remain pandemic-free. It later proved a myth. As had been widely feared, the impacts of people's long absence from work, holidaying by defying health guidelines, and other irregularities resulted in artificial food scarcities. In the Covid-hit developed countries, the strict lockdowns led to temporary food shortages. In terms of ferocity, those scarcities were fleeting. With the lockdowns declared over, after radical drops in caseload and fatalities, the grocery stocks kept being refilled with food grains and food products.

The scenario in the poorer countries including Bangladesh was different. Despite many countries being self-sufficient in food, weak market management and supply disruptions brought their underprivileged onto the brink of starvation. In fact, except in South Sudan and some perennial pockets in the Sub-Saharan Africa and Yemen, famine as a socio-economic factor has been on the way out. The return of food crisis, one of the worst in human history, coinciding this time with the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic, is fraught with future implications. In spite of a full-throttle global campaign of inoculation, and many vaccines on the anvil, the situation should have been anxiety-free and reassuring. But the signs of such a spectacle have yet to be a reality.

The newly coined phrases of vaccine nationalism etc, the finger-pointing at the countries suspected to be the origins of the filthy virus, inoculation disparities, and different irregularities in less developed countries, portend confused times ahead. The multiple mutating trends of a few viruses of the pandemic add to the Covid-19 scourge's ever-increasing ferocity. The days of the 20th century famines appear to be over. Those were caused mainly by prolonged droughts, civil wars and repeated natural disasters. The days of the famines of cataclysmic proportions will, hopefully, not stage a comeback. But the flare-up of localised and semi-global armed conflicts and the innocent people's eventual entanglement with those wars might carry the seeds of their displacement --- leading, finally, to famines. The emergence of newer pandemic viruses is another possibility. The humankind, in essence, is forgetful. Great men are exceptions. They do not forget the hazards of behavioural extravagance, and continue to try to keep mankind on the right path. This human trait has been seen at full play in the ancient Greece and China.

Through the ages, mass-scale social destabilisations, armed conflicts and epidemics have been followed by hunger, acute food shortages --- all leading to famines. In the modern times, when states remain hunger-free under the umbrella of many UN agencies, the scopes for outbreak of famines are faint. With one or another big power at the affected regions' sides, the scourge of food scarcity can hardly plague them. With the UN remaining busy this time extending support to the invention of Covid-19 vaccines and their equitable distribution, the universal corona vaccination may not be a distant possibility. Despite the vaccines' supreme role in the fight against the pandemic, the most vital place is, in fact, occupied by efforts to keep the poorer countries hunger-free. Viewing from broad national perspectives, few countries will be eager to admit the socio-economic marginalisation of the low-income segments of their societies. In reality, the maladies of exclusion of the poor from their main sources of income and their continued social decline have already emerged as a stark truth in many LDCs. They are being hit on many fronts. Apart from their failures to find a way out of the trap of going hungry, a lot of them are compelled to remain exposed to the deadly viruses of the pandemic. Vaccines are, in effect, elusive to a large section of these ill-starred people. Ironically, most of them find themselves out of the pandemic-time national statistics. They themselves bother little to be included in the much-publicised groups of the ultra-poor. To many of them, these inclusions might eventually mean their giving formal recognition to their social degradation. This criterion also applies to the hypersensitive urban lower middle class. Few of them are office employees, the rest being petty traders or businesspersons. Upon going through intermittent corona-prompted shutdowns, and now an indefinite 'strict lockdown', these people find their income outlets shut down one after another. At an unbearable point, they see few options open before them except setting out for their ancestral villages. They may have plans to start small income-generation ventures there to sustain them as long as the closures are in place.    

As part of a general view, people who once regarded themselves as self-sufficient in Bangladesh are now mostly without fixed income. This scenario is commonly encountered in Dhaka and the other big cities.

Although the recent budget document has attached focuses on the alleviation of sufferings facing the 'new poor', many interpret it as being on paper only. What may have prompted them to draw this conclusion is the noticeable bypassing of the cottage industries while allocating special funds or stimulus in helping them tide over the ongoing corona-related financial crises. In reality, small and medium enterprises in general have been caught in a maze of uncertainties, the dominant of them being the business-conducive atmosphere. Besides the petty enterprises, viz. the cottage industries and the like, the hand-to-mouth labour sectors are increasingly feeling the heat. The Covid-19 pandemic is going to ravage them as it has done with even the relatively better-off sectors. The manual labour sector could be termed the worst affected of the income generation areas. The spectacle of construction labourers sitting in rows on the Dhaka pavements, their spades and baskets before them, waiting to be hired for a day is now increasingly becoming common. Most of them leave the venue disillusioned, because none hires them. Who'll come up and pick them? It has been nearly two years since activities in the construction sector in the capital remained stalled. Even if the bustle of work starts after a tolerable remission of the pandemic, it might take months for the labourers to get fully absorbed in their original profession.

Notwithstanding the fast-worsening poverty situation, caused by the losses of income sources, and also the general people's apathy for abiding by pandemic prevention measures to keep them out of the harm's way, Bangladesh, apparently, is fortunate; because it has been able to step into the full vaccine campaign. Any amateurism or shoddiness in dealing with the whole crisis may take the still-vulnerable country to a dreadful stage which might prove irreversible.


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