The Financial Express

Phantom prosperity or a poverty prank!

| Updated: August 05, 2021 22:49:54

Phantom prosperity or a poverty prank!

Few can say with hindsight that they really celebrated the Eid festival in 2021 the way they had where they live for long. Be it Dhaka, Beirut, Tashkent, Jakarta or Dar-es-salaam, it seems, cities are somnambulant, their citizens unmindful of the occasion that brings joys to them.

In Bangladesh this year, almost three million cattle heads, reared for qurbani (sacrifice of animals on Eid days), have reportedly remained unsold. Potential customers couldn't afford to buy these farm animals and now traders and farmers from villages will have to struggle with them.

Farming proves to be the mainstay of the national economy during the current crisis but securing a good farm-gate price for the produces ---food-grains, vegetables, fruits, fishes and so on--- is important.

Personal experience, reports and studies ---all suggest the rural Bangladesh sees reverse migration of millions from the cities where fresh poverty has been created due to loss of business and working opportunities in the past one and a half years.

While the new army of the poor is yet to be recognised as a new reality, it's baffling how many people would pretend to be poor if they are not really so. The lower middle class men and women may rather try to hide a poor face even in case they fall into poverty.

"The villages on the outskirts of Diyarbakir are just one of the countless garbage economies that exist all over the world," wrote Tom Stevenson in a 2020 article titled 'The Prosperity Hoax" published by The Baffler. He added, "…the destitute of Cairo, as of all large cities, refuse to be confined to the underworlds to which they are assigned. They are as much a part of the urban economy as anyone else."

The coronavirus crisis has shaken the urban class especially lower-income group, wage earners and small traders, but made the affluent ones more scared of the virus, thanks to their consciousness of having a better standard of living.

Some of the less fortunate ones still boast, as they believe, of being somewhat free from higher risks of disease because of their hard-working lifestyle unlike the rich men's comforts, fear of infections and sufferings with lifestyle diseases.

The poor thus lag behind in terms of awareness. Almost all others except the sufferers themselves are not either fully aware of how the latter are meeting their 'necessities for a dignified life'. In such a situation, the underprivileged may miss the official development activities being carried out in their vicinity.

In the midst of the numerous unknowns, and that too in an isolated life during the pandemic, there is barely any scope to show off one's invisible affluence, unless black money could be whitened and significant amounts siphoned off.

In 1965, Muhammad Ali beat Sonny Liston in a fight which has been famous for what was widely called a phantom punch. Since champion Ali's last punch before the knockdown didn't reach the challenger's face, it took years to confirm that Liston was already dealt with a very fast killer punch that eventually floored him.

Until the pandemic hit the world, global institutions and governments not excluding Bangladesh's, used to claim a kind of victory over poverty.

Such triumphalism, according to Mr Stevenson, is "the fiction that economies of massive inequality are destroying poverty rather than destroying the poor". "The most dangerous effect of the happy talk about eradicating poverty is the complacency it encourages," he insists.

It may not be possible today to tell what the next generation of economists and sociologists would blame ---the way of assessing poverty or the fallout of the coronavirus ---for the plight of millions in an uncertain world.

The pandemic has at least offered a tangible reason to acknowledge that poverty may have risen. It's thus important to determine not just the percentage of people living below or above the methodical poverty line but who the poor are in a new situation and why.

The authorities need to honestly say how strong the nation's financial backbone is and what needs to be done to dream of a better life once the crisis is over. It's time to change our approach and study the depth of poverty for setting the future course of people's prosperity.


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