Covid-19 pandemic has already dealt one of the biggest and most comprehensive blows ever, to the global economy and human society. And it continues its rampage, viciously in parts of the world while it appears to have slowed down somewhat in others. However, as I write this article (25 May 2020), the increasing daily infections worldwide have topped 100,000, with the total having risen to over 5.4 million. The global total number of deaths has crossed 0.34 million. The source of these data is Johns Hopkins University.
And there is no sign of it abating very soon. In some of the countries where a control on the spread of the virus could be orchestrated, there is the fear of another wave or more waves to appear in the coming weeks and months. Such a fear would remain alive until a vaccine is developed and available all around. But, here is also a question mark as to its availability to all countries of the world in adequate quantities. Least developed and lower income countries may remain deprived for relatively long periods of time, even years, particularly concerning access to sufficient amounts of the vaccine.
In the meantime, the global economy has already been battered so much that the outlook is worse compared to the 2008 global financial crash-led global economic upheavals. In fact, the global economy already shows signs of moving into a deep depression. How the realities will actually shape up would depend on how long the pandemic continues with its claws spread far and wide. But certainly, it is going to be a different world in the post-Covid period, characterised by very different economic and social realities. As the pandemic subsides, both will be in doldrums and much disarray and will need to be reorganised and rejuvenated, embracing the new dynamics and developing new ways of functioning and managing in many respects.
The new world may be largely hinged on digital dynamics. Capital and technology-driven globalisation, characterised by dominance-dependence relationships between the tiny group of owners of those assets and people at large, that the world has been experiencing, over the past decades, in a unipolar world may be a casualty. Multi-polarity may be a key development in the context of the new normal, something that may help usher in a more balanced world. This may not become a reality very soon. A process may in fact be initiated, which could take years, even decades to come to fruition.
In Bangladesh, the pandemic is spreading its claws faster these days with the infection curve sharply rising, having reached the so-far-highest number of 1,975 (representing a high 21 percent of the number tested) over 24 hours from mid-day 24 May to mid-day 25 May. The fast increasing total infections have crossed 35.5 thousand, while the death toll has risen to a total of 501.
Initially, Bangladeshi expatriates, who returned since early March 2020 from heavily coronavirus-infected countries, widely violated quarantine and isolation instructions and mixed with people, starting the process of social transmission of the virus. Now, as the economy is being reopened, workers in general are not following health-related instructions. Even that members of the public have generally kept ignoring the health-related dos and don'ts both in cities and elsewhere. Also, people have travelled, crowding the roads and highways, to their village homes on the occasion of Eid-ul-Fitr, increasing coronavirus transmission risks substantially. People also flocked to markets for Eid shopping, raising the transmission risks.
Apparently, there has been no appetite on the part of the authorities to implement the lockdown strictly by, for example, declaring curfew and taking actions accordingly. Hence, the infection curve has kept rising, and it appears that it will continue to rise steeply in the coming weeks or longer. This would sharply increase deaths as well as adverse health and economic impacts. Consequently, economic and social renewal and recovery will be that much more difficult and costly.
The political economy dynamics related to saving lives of the people in general from Covid-19 and the consequent food insecurity and economic decimation on the one hand, and economic and social recovery and rejuvenation on the other constitute the broader arguments behind how the trajectory of renewal during and forward move in the post Covid-19 period may shape up.
The first obvious point to be made is that the topmost priority has to be to expand, as in fact is emphasised by the government, the following as fast as possible: testing for Covd-19, identifying infections and doing the needful such as isolation, quarantining and treating to save lives and control contagion. And of course facilities and capacity for accomplishing this objective must be, as the government has, concurrently prioritised. With the pandemic spreading fast, the capacity and facilities gaps are increasing, despite best efforts of the government and enlisting of participation of many relevant private operators. Clearly, ineffective lockdown has raised the stake in this context so much more. Thus, a good decision for lockdown by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has not produced the expected results due to wide-scale non-cooperation of the people concerned and lax implementation.
Since the number of tests being carried out is still limited (still under 10 thousand a day), the real picture on infections is not known, which may be much higher than the available figures show. The government is working on fast increasing tests; but given that coronavirus transmission is evidently widening around the country and accelerating, the efforts should be redoubled. Indeed, tests hold the key to bringing the situation under control. At the same time, attention needs to be given to increasing the facilities (such as the number of doctors and other providers of health-related services and various kinds of hospital beds) required to deal with the increasing numbers of infections.
The Prime Minister also acted fast in announcing an assistance and stimulus package on 13 April 2020. This package amounts to about 3.5 percent of the GDP (about one lakh crore Taka) and covers the most important sectors including food security, health, agriculture, large industries, exports, small and medium enterprises and microenterprises.
But, on implementation, there seems to be no urgency. The usual bureaucratic procrastination is very much in evidence. There is little sanguineness that we now face exceptional circumstances and exceptional responses are in order. It's already one month and a half since the package was announced, but procedures are still being worked out as to whom to and how to provide support or credit, and even how to mobilise the funds, in most respects.
In the meantime, the situations of the intended recipients of the stimulus for economic renewal are worsening. Even if they receive money eventually, people, for example, in the poultry and the fishery subsectors, microenterprises in general and even certain small enterprises could by then be in a quandary from which recovery may be very tough, even impossible in certain cases.
On ensuring food security of millions of people who have gone bust as a consequence of coronavirus invasion, government efforts are on and are being supplemented by resourceful people, institutions and business houses. Despite leakages and misdirection, particularly in government programmes, people are being reached by and large. But, there are notable lapses. Delivery mechanism can certainly be improved by curbing corruption and improving purposefulness and efficiency.
Overall, there will certainly be a sharp decline in GDP growth rate, a steep increase in poverty, shattering of the rural economy except perhaps rice production, extreme vulnerability of millions of workers in the rural economy (agricultural and non-agricultural) and in urban informal sectors, a severe jolt in the export sector, and a dampening impact on remittances. These downturns constitute sharp reversals of Bangladesh's romping forward march in all respects prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.
Moreover, there is another setback in that the government's revenue collection is already adversely affected this fiscal year (2019-20) and may be hit significantly next year. The external circumstances have also turned very unfavourable and worsened with a deep depression looming, as a result of the disruptions caused by coronavirus all around the world. Under the circumstances, I expect the forthcoming budget (for 2020-21) will, as must be, take on board the coronavirus-induced realities, some of which are highlighted in this article.
These abovementioned realities define the new context for Bangladesh to plan and act for recovery and rejuvenation of the economy. Of course, all the aspects listed above need to be properly evaluated and given appropriate attention in planning for bringing about a turn-around. But, considerations relating to GDP growth and hence capitalist sectors should not detain us much. Since coronavirus has starkly shown that the poor and low income people, who constitute a large majority of the national population, are so vulnerable that they cannot be left to such a plight in future. All these would behoove the planners and policymakers to adopt an equity and participation-guided human-centric development paradigm. Of course, policy measures for ensuring stability in macroeconomic fundamentals must be in place. In this suggested process, GDP growth will occur and accelerate, but that will be broad-based and equitably distributed. Such an outcome will certainly strengthen the resilience of the people at large and, hence, of the nation to face and walk the future together and tall.
The key concepts in this approach include human dignity for all, equity, participation, human capability development through quality education, skill training and health services, appropriate access of the so-far-deprived segments of the population to financial and technological resources, multi-dimensionality of poverty and development, infrastructural development as appropriate, and rule of law.
A major call of this paradigm is to particularly focus on the downtrodden and other low income groups that in fact constitute the large majority in Bangladesh, despite the fact that the country has been achieving one of the highest GDP growth rates in the world in recent years. And for this paradigm to be properly and effectively implemented, purposeful involvement of the people themselves at local spaces in planning and implementing action programmes for their own development is essential and that calls for local governments to be empowered and enabled to spearhead it.
Let me refer here to the ENRICH programme of Palli Karma-Sahayak Foundation (PKSF), which has been implementing such an approach, under my auspices, in some 202 Unions across the country. This programme has yielded highly encouraging and solid results, which can serve as useful inputs in the context of the proposed paradigm to be developed and implemented nationwide. I should think, there is enough inspiration from the ideals of the War of Liberation and enough incentives given that coronavirus has starkly exposed the inherent divisive character and unsustainability of the ongoing capital-centric neo-liberal paradigm for a political decision to be taken to replace it by a human-centric pathway.
There are, however, formidable roadblocks that may prevent the paradigm shift. First of all, although Awami League is committed to establishing a democratic welfare state in Bangladesh (see Awami League's 2008 Election Manifesto), the necessary political will and a favourable coalition of forces within Awami League may not emerge, particularly when many neo-liberal stalwarts are now influential members of the Party. Second, top echelons and all other beneficiaries of the ongoing paradigm will undoubtedly resist it because the shift would mean that they sacrifice their economic and socio-political pre-eminence. Third, the self-serving and greedy among the elites at all levels of society will resist the shift as their ability to capture benefits illicitly will be curtailed as a consequence. The people, belonging to this third group, are in fact rouge elements in the present system as well, steeped in corruption. They manage to retain their positions and keep to their tricks, despite the declaration of zero tolerance against corruption.
But, in the long run, the proposed paradigm shift would be to everybody's and, hence, the nation's benefit, given that the paradigm shift will promote cohesiveness, harmony and sustainability in the economy and society.
The writer is an eminent Bangladeshi economist and development thinker.