It is now evident that the spread of coronavirus is better contained in Bangladesh than in many countries. As of April 28, 2020, a total 6462 people have tested coronavirus positive while 155 patients died. Although average 400-500 people are found coronavirus positive since last one week, the number seems fewer than forecasts by the experts and WHO. Researchers of Singapore provided rays of hope of ending the Covid-19 pandemic by May 2020. The comprehensive preparedness programme including lockdown, movement restriction, intuitional and home quarantine system, isolation, and preparation of Covid-19 patient treatment have a positive effect to relatively controlled pandemic. Moreover, inclusive plan for most vulnerable groups has stopped massive spread. The main reasons behind this relatively low infection are the restriction of movement, effective implementation of government strategies and relentless effort of public employees particularly at local level.
Meanwhile, movement of garment workers because of public holiday announcement and closure of factory increased the rate of infection. Moreover, the sudden irrational decision of factory owners forced workers to move from villages to Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayangonj where most garment factories are located. As it raised repercussion from the civil society, the decision was withdrawn. After hectic and troublesome journey of 10 hours or even more, mostly on foot, workers were asked to go back. Movement of huge population with untold miseries is thought to be the cause of faster spreading of coronavirus, which earlier was relatively controlled.
The similar case appeared for the second time as garment factories were reopened from April 26, 2020. It is reportedly found that workers were phoned to join work without any formal notification fearing public criticism. The repetition of the same mistake increased movement of big groups of people and helped spreading of coronavirus. A total 61.46 per cent COVID-19 patients are from Dhaka, Narayanganj, and Gazipur. Considering the situation and effects of the virus, reopening the garment factories seems to be erroneous.
Extensions of opening time of local shops, opening of restaurants, public offices mean Bangladesh has started its gradual move to normal life. Eighteen ministries and their attached departments have been instructed to function, which are mainly related to the implementation of strategies to combat COVID-19 pandemic.
Opening of businesses increases movement of people in public places, and maintaining social distancing is difficult due to various limitations. Frontline fighters -- law enforcing personnel, local government officials, physicians and other medical staff have a higher record of infection. Moreover, it is noticeable that increased tests have resulted in higher number of covid positive cases.
In spite of threats of contamination, garment factory owners and workers are in favour of reopening. This labour intensive sector not only provides employment for unskilled or semiskilled workers, it is also the main driving force for Bangladesh's economy. It is the second largest exporter in the world with a big market in European countries and USA. China, Vietnam, Cambodia, India are the key competitors; the first three have already opened their garment industry as they have successfully addressed the Covid-19 pandemic. If Bangladesh does not allow reopening, the market may be captured by the competitors. At this stage, cancellation of orders by buyers may be revived if industries can operate. Factory owners can minimise the loss as well. Moreover, reopening factories can foster economic growth and ease the livelihood of 4 million workers and their about 20 million family members.
It is a dilemma whether garment industry should reopen or not. Considering the working environment and densely populated living condition, reopening may be too risk-prone, particularly for Dhaka and the neighbouring districts of about 2.87 million people. On the other hand, closure of factories may incur huge loss as the industry has already faced $ 3 billion order cancellation in just one month. Closure of factories will magnify other social problem too.
Some factories have already started firing workers or have laid off. Hence, reopening is a trade off between life and livelihood. Workers do not have any choice but choose to work to run their livelihoods in spite of risking health hazards including death.
The government has already announced a Tk 50.0 billion stimulus package as part of cushioning the crisis, particularly to pay the salary to the workers. Government has also given permission to reopen by taking appropriate measures to prevent Covid-19 spread among the factory workers.
Only ensuring social distancing in true sense and maintaining health hygiene can minimise the risk. Factory management should sit and make a comprehensive plan and redesign the working environment. Strong monitoring by the government is also crucially important.
Dr. Mohammad Rezaul Karim is a Deputy Director at Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre. [email protected]. Dr. Mohammad Tarikul Islam is an Associate Professor of Department of Government and Politics at the University of Jahangirnagar, Dhaka, [email protected]