The economic growth of any country is now inextricably intertwined with its success in reining in the onslaught of the deadly pathogen - SARS-CoV-2- on life and livelihood. So, the problem all boils down to one issue-the Covid-19 pandemic which prompted many to use again the old phrase New Normal.
The phrase was used while settling things at the end of most difficult times such as World War I, the 2007-08 global recession and the September 11 attacks. But never before, it had been used as widely as it is being done now-the Covid-19 pandemic time. Another phrase-New Poor- is also in circulation. The government, however, has not yet recognised the existence of the 'New Poor'. The national budget placed in parliament by Finance Minister AHM Mostafa Kamal last Thursday also did not make any mention of the reversal of the poverty trend.
The New Poor are the people who were above poverty until March 08 last year and the pandemic has pushed them down below that line. Surveys done by independent organisations have detected a notable rise in poverty. According to a survey, poverty increased from 20 per cent to over 40 per cent during the pandemic months. Even a government research organisation has found the rise in poverty albeit on a lesser scale. But the budget does not have any specific allocations or programmes to help pull the new as well as old poor out of the poverty trap. The finance minister has left things in the hands of normal budgetary operations, revenue and capital. There are safety net programmes that deal with the special categories of the poor and the distressed. But the New Poor do not have a place in those. Moreover, the help extended under the safety net is not anything big barring the one given to the freedom fighters. The safety net helps millions to manage life somehow.
The story of distress and hardship does not revolve around the poor alone. The middle-class is also hit hard by the pandemic. Many have lost jobs and other sources of income. Owners of many shops and establishments had pulled down their shutters permanently failing to bear with the pandemic onslaught. As the first wave of virus infection started receding, many people were making efforts to piece together their shattered life. But the second wave has unsettled that move as well. The wave is still on and not subsiding. This time the concentration of the virus is in the districts, which are geographically close to India, one of the worst-affected countries of the world.
Amidst such a situation, the government has come up with a budget with the hope of achieving a 7.2 growth in the upcoming fiscal. It intends to achieve that by setting a record expenditure target while offering tax sops to businesses. It will have to rely more on foreign and domestic borrowing to meet the deficit. Questions have already been raised about the feasibility of the domestic resource mobilisation plan.
It is no denying that the success of the budget will largely depend on the resumption of normal life, free from the threat of a virus stalking everywhere. But that will not happen automatically. Use of masks, washing hands and social distancing would protect from virus, but normalcy would not return. Only massive vaccination can help the economy pick up. But where do we stand now as far as vaccination is concerned?
The vaccination programme spelt out by the finance minister in his budget speech is rather disappointing. The plan, according to him, is to inoculate only 2.5 million people per month. Vaccinating 80 per cent population, which is necessary to achieve the so-called hard immunity, at such a poor rate will take many years. At least, 0.5 million people need to be inoculated daily. The physical infrastructure and human resources available both in private and public sectors, possibly, will be capable of carrying out such a vaccination programme.
What, however, appears most important issue at the moment is ensuring a sustained supply of vaccines. That is the area where the situation is uncertain. Even two to three months back, things looked easy and smooth as vaccines had started arriving as per the contract struck with the Serum Institute of India (SII). But the ban imposed by the Indian government on vaccine exports unsettled a well-knit vaccination plan.
The government has digested lots of criticism for depending on a single source in the matters of vaccine procurement. The veiled demonstration of unwillingness to entertain a Chinese request to conduct the stage-three trial of a vaccine, developed by one of its biotech company, has added fuel to the issue.
The government, however, has spoilt no time in finding other sources of the Covid vaccine. The procurement of 15 million doses of vaccine from Chinese company Sinopharm is now at the last stage. But mishandling of the issue at the bureaucratic level has created some irritation. Hopefully, the problem will be solved. The health officials say the Chinese vaccine will arrive this month. But the way things are progressing, there could be a delay in vaccine arrival. Negotiations, reportedly, have been going on with the Russian government to buy a sizeable volume of Sputnik V vaccines.
If the government is serious about taking the economy back to full gear, it has to move fast in the matters of vaccinating the population within the shortest possible time. It has earmarked funds in the upcoming budget for vaccine procurement. Donors have also been generous in extending funds for the vaccination programme. With the western countries reaching their vaccination targets within the next three to four months, vaccines are likely to be available in greater volume. Until then, the country will have to follow strictly the Covid-19 safety protocols.