It has been almost a month since the second wave of Covid-19 infections has hit Bangladesh. The number of new cases started to rise at the beginning of March and gradaully peaked on April 7, when 7,626 new cases were identified in one day. Needless to say, the number of deaths has also surged. Faced with such dire circumstances, the Bangladesh government issued a lockdown order on April 5.
Even though this initiative may seem similar to the lockdown that started in the March of 2020, the context of these events is completely different. There was a sense of anxious panic among everyone during 2020, as we all were unaware of different aspects of this pandemic. The government also prepared for the inevitable economic hardship of the economically disadvantaged people of the country. It incentivised people to stay in their homes and maintain social distancing at both local and national levels, even though there was plenty of criticism of their actions. These catalysts helped to maintain the previous quarantine, even though many thought it was inadequate.
There was a sense of invulnerability among the general populace after the lockdown ended in the May of the previous year. Even after resuming economic activities, the number of new cases remained relatively low while the country started to heal. People started to realise that this pandemic might be around for a long time and it is imperative to continue their usual economic activities despite the risk. On the other hand, the disease was largely demystified, people were aware of its symptoms and the methods of infection. This, coupled with a low death rate gave the illusion that Covid-19 was not that dangerous of a disease.
But the reality was quite different. Our lack of knowledge regarding the new variants of the coronavirus gave us a false sense of security. The government thought that permitting economicactivities in limited capacity during the lockdown would reduce the penury of the poor, making government funded incentive programmes obsolete.
Government policies with regard to economic activities during this lockdown were not particularly helpful either. As the government got to decide which sectors would function unencumbered by regulations, the influential businessmen leveraged their positions to influence the decision to keep their sectors unaffected, which made the official decision different from the ones suggested by public health experts. Even though markets and shopping malls are often densely populated and can lead to massive breakouts, small business owners also felt discriminated against by the policies of the government and staged multiple protests against them.
Two main factors: the ignorance of the masses about the destructive potential of the new strains of the Coronavirus, and their need to continue normal economic activities made the lockdown largely ineffective.
But there were some positives during this lockdown. People of all economic classes realised the threat, perhaps too late, and started wearing masks and maintaining other health regulations even though it is quite hard to maintain social distancing in a country as densely populated as ours.
The government has issued another lockdown, starting from April 14. We have to understand that the economy is quite vulnerable now and this lockdown is going to cost the poorest people the most. The majority of the population now has fewer savings and capital than they had a year ago. Therefore, a curfew style lockdown, where the country grinds to a halt and strict regulations are placed on movement can be tough to maintain. Public health experts have expressed a need for a 28-days long lockdown to severely curb the number of new infections while others maintain that a 14-day long lockdown is necessary as it takes two weeks to show definite symptoms of Covid-19 infections. It will perhaps be possible for lower income households to survive a week of hard lockdown by using their savings, donations from NGOs, loans and existing government funded programmes. But these will not be adequate for a prolonged period of time and the government will have to increase the range & scale of their already established social safety programmes. This will be extremely hard for the government of a developing country like Bangladesh because of its financial constraints and low tax and VAT yield. Additionally, RMG and other export oriented sectors will have to face a tough time and will be needing financial aid and incentive packages, putting more pressure on the government.
As a result, a lockdown where economic activities are limitedly allowed is our best bet for survival now. It must be said that saving lives and lowering the number of new cases should always be at the forefront of the initiatives of the government. Having said that, the current measures of the government can be extremely effective in that regard if some additional measures are introduced. Maintaining health regulations like wearing masks and social distancing should be of utmost importance. But the conventional method for enforcing these regulations will not suffice. These regulations should be brought under an overarching legal infrastructure. Fines for not wearing masks should be increased to a point where it will act as a deterrence mechanism. Additionally, the government has to ensure that rigorous health standards are being maintained in factories and financial institutions. To accomplish this, the authorities should create regional labour inspection teams which will exercise magistral power and will be able to fine or shut down factories that do not maintain the rules of hygiene. People from other government agencies should be hired to reinforce the labour ministry in this regard. All law enforcement agencies like the Police, BGB, the army, the navy and the air force should also be used to assist the labour ministry. It is imperative that the factories are regularly inspected to reduce the rate of infection.
In addition, the government can expand the range & scale of its social safety programmes to assist the poor in these trying times. During the lockdown of 2020, prices of products that are needed regularly were maintained at a tolerable level. But we have not seen any such thing during this lockdown. The government should try to maintain or reduce the prices of daily necessities by making sure the market has enough supplies and profit oriented hoarding does not take place. It can incentivise the importers while importing necessary goods and selling them at fair prices in the open market.
We saw a rise in poverty rates during the lockdown of 2020. Not letting this cycle repeat will be of utmost importance. Otherwise, we can see a rise in malnutrition, child mortality, child marriage and drop out, which will set us back tremendously as a nation.
There are ample opportunities to learn from that lockdown. Firstly, the absence of a national database was felt immensely when Covid-19 first hit Bangladesh. Having adequate data is a must for devising and implementing policies effectively. Our country does not have a database where the entire population is divided according to their geographical locations and their incomes. This emptiness reduced the government's potential to reach the people living in the fringes of society who need all the help they can get. Even though the government promised to give out BDT 12.50 billion to the people in need, only 72 per cent of the funds have been distributed so far. On the other hand, some European countries brought insurance money for RMG workers who lost their jobs during the pandemic but most of it can not be distributed as the workers are now traceless. A national database that is regularly updated can solve such problems and increase the effectiveness of financial aids significantly. Additionally, corruption has to be eliminated to ensure a fair and equitable aid distribution system.
As discussed above, it is not feasible for the government to be a long time aid provider during periods of crisis. To combat this, various insurance schemes like unemployment insurance, health insurance & life insurance need to be introduced to a larger amount of the population. These support systems have reduced people's sufferings and helped the government to maintain fiscal solvency in the developed world.
Corruption and mismanagement in the health sector is in dire need of attention. After the pandemic hit, the PM promised that all health related projects will be approved and materialised with urgency. But we have seen a lack of necessary infrastructure during the second wave, notably the lack of oxygen and ICU facilities. The government can help in this regard by incentivising hospitals to rapidly increase their facilities to accommodate the increased number of patients.
The private healthcare sector of Bangladesh is notoriously expensive. We have the second most expensive private healthcare sector in terms of out of pocket expenditure in South Asia after Afghanistan. The COVID-19 pandemic has probably increased this cost too. Therefore, government subsidies will be key to reduce prices and save lives.
Doctors and nurses of our country have been fighting relentlessly in the frontlines for over a year. They were promised increased benefits that have not been fully implemented. The government has to ensure that they receive their promised incentives to keep their morale high & inspire future doctors.
Needless to say, we are at a crucial point in our fight against this pandemic. However, effective policy and careful implementation can still save millions of lives while maintaining economic growth and prosperity.
Dr Khondaker Golam Moazzem, Research Director, CPD.