As a new surge of the Covid-19 had struck Bangladesh recently, the government announced a seven-day nationwide lockdown for one week (5-11 April). The target of this lockdown was to limit the transmission of this deadly virus and keep people safe. Now a second lockdown for another seven days started from April 14. The way the 5-11 April lockdown, restrictions to be more accurate, was implemented shows that lockdown seems unlikely to yield effective results in reducing virus transmission, while the economic loss is inevitable. We need to identify the drawbacks of these lockdown restrictions and why Bangladesh is still not ready to enforce a complete lockdown. Most important is to find out how we may keep a balance between life and livelihood in the context of the resources and institutional realities of Bangladesh. The first lockdown was imposed just for a week, and the new lockdown has been announced for another week with an interval of two days in between. However, experts suggest that we need a complete lockdown for 14 to 21 days to slow down the spread of the Covid-19. Even if the lockdown restrictions were appropriately implemented, a week of lockdown would certainly not effectively curb the transmission in any sense.
Moreover, the first lockdown was much unorganised, slack, and loosely implemented, far from the true spirit of lockdown. It remained as a 'partial' one where factories, offices, and even the most crowded places such as Ekushey Book Fair and Bangladesh Games were permitted to continue. Gradually, shopping malls and some public transportation were allowed to function before the end of the week. Lockdown means everyone has to remain at home unless one has an emergency, such as medical care or bare essentials. But when a lockdown and public gatherings are encouraged simultaneously, it provides a wrong and confusing signal to the mass people regarding what to do. We already notice some of these features for the second lockdown, where industries have been allowed to remain open. Again, the question arises, whether this kind of lockdown is meaningful while we are incurring enormous sufferings for day labourers, hawkers, petty business owners, and loss and slowing down of the overall economy.
PROVIDING SOCIAL SECURITY PACKAGES: When we talk about stay-at-home restrictions, we should also focus on why a complete lockdown in Bangladesh is hard to impose and why most people disagree to accept it. Financial hardship is one of the most salient reasons for it. Day labourers, small entrepreneurs of informal businesses, and people from low-income households are hit hardest by such restrictions. Without providing sufficient financial support, it is implausible that they will comply with quarantine restrictions. Hence, one of the ways to resolve this issue is through social security packages on a broad scale during the lockdown.
While arranging social security or stimulus packages or providing food supplies and essentials, we also need to ensure that the affected people know where to get such support and whom to ask for that. These programmes should be expanded to the Upazila level to benefit maximum people who are actually in need. The government may reintroduce and expand the scheme of providing minimum financial support to low-income households through Mobile Financial Services (MFS). Last year, this stimulus programme was targeted to aid 5.0 million poor households. In Bangladesh, the extreme poverty rate is around 11 per cent, which implies that over 17 million people fell under this category. So it may seem that supporting 5.0 million poor households is not enough. Though all the poor households may not need such assistance immediately, we need to have the preparation. Moreover, it is not even easy to assure financial assistance for so many people instantly. Without such preparation for supporting underprivileged people, announcing a long-term lockdown could be detrimental. Therefore, a very pertinent thought is, if we cannot curb virus transmission without a more extended term lockdown, then what is the point to go for short lockdowns which are so disorganised. . We have to take a holistic approach while planning. We have to adopt a long-term plan beyond lockdown. In Bangladesh's reality, lockdown is not the solution as we cannot afford to go for a meaningful lockdown for an extended period.
ASSUAGING THE PANIC REGARDING THE LOCKDOWN: Due to the previous experience of lockdown, there is a mass panic all over the country regarding such restrictions. An argument may arise that some people are just exaggerating this matter because a seven-day lockdown cannot create a severe food shortage in most households and they can somehow cope with it with their small savings. However, people have already seen these lockdown restrictions get extended, pushing them into the pool of financial difficulties and uncertainties. The panic among these people is not just about these seven days. They have no idea what to expect after this week or how long it will take for them to get regular works. Another problem associated with such an announcement is that panic buying starts to ramp up. Higher-income households and even middle-income households can afford to stockpile some food supplies and other essentials, which is beyond the capacity of low-income households. Therefore, the growing tension among low-income households about the shortage of basic food supplies in the near future is justifiable. Besides these, there was a rumour just after the declaration that the government does not have sufficient storage of rice to distribute if needed. This misinformation added fuel to the fire, and the anti-lockdown protests grew more serious.
Even if this was a rumour this time, the government should take initiatives to procure rice so that there is no food shortage later on. Our major source of rice is Boro and the harvesting time for Boro will start at the end of April. This year the situation is quite different from the normal years. Hence, it demands a thorough plan on procuring rice efficiently amid this pandemic and how mills should work, keeping the safety issues in mind because we have to deal with both livelihood and the transmission of the Covid-19 simultaneously. The government should immediately announce the procurement price for Boro rice. If the national rice storage is filled up and the government ensures the ability to distribute rice when needed, the concerns over the shortage of food supplies can be reduced to some extent. We need to take this preparation whether or not there is an extended lockdown.
ENFORCING PUBLIC HEALTH GUIDELINES IS WHAT WE NEED: Last year we noticed the poor institutional capacity of our health sector. We now understand that we have to live with Covid-19 for quite a while and therefore we need a long term planning beyond this lockdown. Currently only a little over 3 per cent of the population could be covered by the vaccination programme. We need to take preparation for the universal vaccination of the population. Even then, given the current understanding of the effectiveness of the vaccines, we may not be fully protected. All these realities indicate that we need to plan how we can bring a balance between life and livelihood. In my view, the solution is to enforce strict practice of health guidelines to combat Covid. Short-term lockdown will not bring effective curbing of the virus surge, it will only hurt the economy.
Additional programmes to safeguard public health should be introduced. For example, the government should initiate extensive programmes to distribute masks, hand sanitisers and soaps to those who cannot afford to buy these. There were some hand-washing stations last year, but most of them are now lying useless due to lack of care. We need to revive the practical measures favouring public health like hand-washing stations and some more suitable measures for the current condition. While distributing hygiene products for the poor people, the government needs to carry out continuous social awareness programmes about Covid-19. Law enforcement officials can play a significant role in implementing health guidelines, especially in making people wear masks or maintaining social distance in public places. However, law enforcement officials cannot control such conditions if general people are not supportive. The local government leaders should come forward to create awareness regarding the health protocols.
HARSHER ECONOMIC SHOCKS: This year's condition for lockdown restrictions is very different than that of the previous year. Before the last year's lockdown, our economy was progressive, and we were expanding gradually, and people had savings in hand. Even some of the low-income households had minimal savings to support themselves for a short time. However, the present condition is a different and complicated one where many people have experienced job losses or incurred losses in their business. As a result, they had to spend their savings and possessions supporting their families or covering up business losses. We are yet to recover from the previous shock of the pandemic. The second wave of Covid-19 has posed larger challenges to the already challenged people. The government should concentrate more on making people health and hygiene conscious for curbing the transmission if lockdown restrictions cannot be imposed completely due to the issues associated with poverty and uncertainties.
THE WAY FORWARD: Based on our socio-economic condition, the government needs to take a one-year plan to reduce transmission and at the same time ensure livelihoods for people. The plan should include three major issues. Firstly, enough preparation should be taken to provide food and cash support to the poor people in case any temporary movement restriction (rather than calling it lockdown) is necessary. Secondly, new stimulus packages should be devised to cover micro and small entrepreneurs of the informal sector. People who are struggling to repay previous loans should be given some additional time for repaying. Thirdly, strict implementation of health protocols should be ensured. At the same time, health facilities at the upazila level should be enhanced. The activists of political parties can influence general people to follow health and hygiene guidelines. The leaders must take the responsibility to guide their activists regarding this in such a national emergency.
We may not have the capacity to afford a complete lockdown, but we can surely afford to and must maintain health and hygiene protocols strictly as long as Covid-19 is present.
Dr Nazneen Ahmed is Senior Research Fellow, Bangladesh Institute of
Development Studies (BIDS). [email protected]