There are many lessons to be learned from the Covid-19 experience in Bangladesh. But one home truth from the experience in the last 6 months is that not all quarters are ready to learn the right lessons.
Covid-19 has inflicted 4 crises on Bangladesh.
First, the health crisis. Covid-19 has exposed the broken health system of Bangladesh, both the public sector and the private sector. However, the government does not appear to have prepared to learn the required reform lessons. On the pandemic itself, though the panic has broadly gone, the uncertainty remains. Three attitudes have taken root among the people – one, continuing to remain indoors is not an option; two, testing is not a priority; and three, avoid hospitals and clinics because there is no service in any case and the costs are irrational and prohibitive.
Second, the economic crisis. The record after 6 months is a mixed one. Two key risks have been weathered – Ready-Made Garment (RMG) sector has rebounded and rice production has held up. Entrepreneurs and farmers played their roles. Government stimulus for wage support to RMG also helped. But stimulus packages for farmers, the cottage, small and medium (CSME) sector and low income occupations have largely remained on paper. Activity recovery has not translated into a corresponding earning recovery. Already, 21.7% new poor have been added to the 20.5% of the poor while 16% of Dhaka's poor and low income people have been forced to leave the capital due to uncertain income and unrelenting expenditure burdens.
Third, the human capital crisis. Not only are schools closed and a whole generation thrust into an uncertain future, social and policy attention too has been sorely lacking.
Fourth, the governance crisis. This has appeared with two faces. One has to do with shameless corruption in pandemic time that has plagued the health sector and to a lesser extent relief activities. The deeper governance crisis has been the extraordinary disregard of popular sentiments by the authorities. Bangladesh appears to have entered a new governance era where non-performance – for example the case for the health minister – carries no political costs.
Beyond these four crises, there is another noteworthy story in these 6 months. This is the resilience of the common people – ensuring the boro harvest, risking the pandemic to return to RMG factories, taking to technology to find distance learning solutions to the schooling crisis.
Looking to the future, the PPRC-BIGD June Survey found the dominant mood among the respondents to be one of uncertainty and pessimism about economic turn-around in the near future. The need is not just for new policies but more importantly for a new national mood. Will the government or can they understand this need?
Covid-19 has forced a new policy agenda for Bangladesh. Four priorities looking into the next six months:
- How best to deal with the "new poor", particularly urban informal occupations
- An agenda of rural regeneration based on a mega stimulus package for the rural non-farm sector utilising MFIs rather than banks to implement the programme
- An urgent national convention to address the human capital crisis
- An action plan for health sector reforms
The priorities are not for the government alone. Civil society space has shrunk. But there is nothing to stop civil initiatives to engage on these priorities.
The writer is executive chairman of the Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC)