The coronavirus outbreak has exposed the people as a whole to an unprecedented health crisis. And the shutdown, enforced to contain the pandemic, has put the economy on pause. From both health and economic points of view, the poor are the worst hit.
The prolonged shutdown is very likely to slow the rate of poverty reduction Bangladesh has achieved steadily over the decades. So the country, while fighting the pandemic, also needs to look for the ways to exit from the lockdown and reopen its economy gradually.
But the immediate focus now is to keep people alive.
Some work has started, but the required pace is not yet seen. To avert human tragedy and social unrest, both the scale and the speed of the rescue effort have to be enhanced. However, targeting appears to be the main stumbling block here. I think we are over- problematizing this issue. The impact (of prolonged shutdown enforced to slow the spread of coronavirus) is so huge that not the poor alone have been hit hard. Roughly 80 percent of median level earners, whom we categorise as vulnerable non-poor, have slid under the poverty line afresh. In this context, targeting could be relaxed to some extent, and more self-targeting schemes like open market sale be explored to help these new entrants out of the hard time.
It is not alone that poverty has been on steady decline, the mindset of poor people has also gone through a significant change over the time before this coronavirus issue hit us. People have developed an enterprising mindset of self-help, and handouts is not an easy decision for many of them.
So in designing the rescue plan, the issue of dignity should be taken into consideration. Instead of being troubled too much with listing, the distribution details need to be focused on much more. There will be some corruption. We may even afford inefficiency to some extent. When food is a crying need, it is most important now to bring relief to the people who need it the most.
There is an issue between cash and kind. People who were above the poverty line just the other day need both food and cash. Cash support, as doled out by the government, needs to be distributed without delay. We should not waste time looking for a perfect solution. There is a saying: 'perfection should not be the enemy of the good.' We need to go for second best option and good enough options and act fast to reach out to people with immediate assistance.
This is about immediate response to the crisis. The other issue which should be considered now is the health of the people engaged in the supply chain because we need to keep the supply chain open. The government is taking good steps to ensure uninterrupted supply of goods, keep prices in check and break the syndicated hoarding.
For a smoothly operating supply chain, the health of the transport workers and others involved in the supply chain needs utmost consideration. I do not think the first best option like perfect social distancing will work here. We need to see whether they wear facemasks, how the markets can be kept cleaned, how safe the environment is in their workplaces.
The kitchen markets, regular garbage collection are among the emergency services involving huge numbers of people below the poverty line. We should take a practical approach rather than keep our eyes closed and assume that the perfect solution is working. We need to bring public health experts and development innovators together to develop practical models and standard operating procedures for this section of people amid calls for social distancing to contain the spread of the deadly virus. Extra care would be needed if we think about reopening life and speed up the economy further.
Going beyond the public health issues like infection control, we seem to be more concerned about an intensive healthcare approach such as ventilators, which is beyond our reach and difficult to scale. Are we medicalising the issue much? The main focus should be minimizing preventable deaths. This may require us to focus on managing the mild/moderate cases before they become more serious and this could require a less medicalised and more public health oriented approach. But developing and scaling such a model fast will require us to be bold and think more creatively in terms of innovations in the institutional space.
It is true that over the years the role of non-government organisations has shrunk and the flow of external aid has declined with the country's gains in economic growth and poverty reduction. NGOs have scaled down their activities in the social sector. Now the time has come again for synergistic partnership between the government and NGOs at a time when development partners are also struggling with the same crisis.
Lots of support programmes—financial and technical-- are required to reconstruct the livelihood of millions of people thrown out of jobs by the shutdown. NGOs have a bigger role to play here and the scope and space will have to be created by the government to re-engage them. Again, the key will be imagining bold new innovations in the institutional space of service delivery.
Dr Imran Matin, is a Development Researcher and Executive Director, BRAC Institute of Governance & Development, BRAC University
This article draws from a PPRC-BIGD rapid survey conducted during April 8-14 on the immediate effects of Covid-19 on livelihoods of 5,471 rural and urban slum households. Pls visit BIGD website to learn more about this study and other works by BIGD of its Rapid research response to COVID 19 Initiative.