Political forces are exercising a very limited power as decisions, taken at the top level, are being implemented by the state bureaucracy, showing clear evidence of performance deficiency in the Covid-19 governance, said economist Prof Rehman Sobhan, chairman of Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).
State bureaucracy is being utilised extensively in the pandemic management, he said at the launch of the report of the study titled "Governing COVID-19 in Bangladesh: Realities and reflections to build forward better."
The study report was presented at a webinar Thursday by Dr Mirza Hassan and Dr Naomi Hossain of Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).
Prof Rehman Sobhan referred to stimulus packages, which, he said, were mostly enjoyed by big businesses, which is the reflection of the political economy of the state.
"How recipients have used the incentives remains a big question," he said, stressing that the outcomes need to be examined given the allegations of job loss and wage cuts in the readymade garment sector which benefited the most from the stimulus.
The renowned economist also warned that the stimulus packages channelled through the banking systems might aggravate the default crisis in banks in future.
The study reveals that Bangladesh lacked policy framework and infrastructure for pandemic response. "Health system is grossly under-resourced. Public health messaging was effective—but less trust in COVID-19 statistics," says the study, analysing the health sector governance during Covid-19.
Pandemic preparation was centralised, uncoordinated, non-transparent; public procurement slow and allegedly corrupt, it pointed out, raising the question if political commitment to health will increase after the pandemic.
On the governance of the lockdown, the study pointed out that official communications regarding lockdowns were confusing and inconsistent, and lockdowns have been enforced lightly "knowing people needed to eat."
It reveals strong public consensus that lockdown was viable if people received relief.
The study found 92% of the citizens knew of government relief and only 12% had seen NGOs help during the pandemic and lockdowns. Many believed nepotism and corruption left deserving people off beneficiary lists, it revealed, analysing the governance of relief programme during the pandemic.
The beneficiary selection and delivery processes were opaque and unaccountable, and public information about entitlements was limited, the study found.
It recommended that government agencies and actors need to be empowered and incentivised and given adequate resources to strengthen disaster management capacities and institutions across a broader range of potential shocks.
There must be a bold vision of social protection for all Bangladeshis, to avoid undoing years of progress in economic development, while corruption in social protection must be tackled by making the system transparent and accountable, it said.
Development economist SR Osmani, a Professor at University of Ulster, UK, said the government pursued growth for the sake of its so-called performance legitimacy at the expense of the well-being of the wider base of households and working individuals, who were the hardest hit amid the pandemic and lockdowns.
In mid-2020 the government opened up the economy when infection rate was at the peak, he pointed out.
As of the beginning of this year, 80% of the government stimulus funds went to cater to the GDP growth while only 20% was linked with the protection of the wider class of struggling low income individuals and households, he added.
The stimulus package has had a "large-scale bias" as the small enterprises lagged significantly behind the large firms in terms of their share in stimulus allocation and disbursement.
Ultimately that hurt both—the economic performance and the suffering masses who drastically lost income during the pandemic on top of their health risks.
Taking part in the discussion, Prof Rounaq Jahan, distinguished fellow of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) observed that political leaders seemed to have been left out of the main role in the Covid-19 management. She felt that people should be asked what role they expect the government to play and whether they really care for transparency and zero tolerance on corruption since the study finds 60% of the respondents complaining about corruption in relief distribution.
Prof Rounaq referred to the recommendations made in studies and webinars during the last 18 months since the outbreak of Covid-19 and said there is no reason those would be followed up if the government continues to think that they (the government) have a better sense of the people's pulse than academics.
Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS) Director General Dr Binayak Sen, Policy Research Institute Director Dr M A Razzaque, labour activist Kalpona Akter, Brac Bangladesh's Associate Director of Health, Nutrition and Population Programme Morseda Chowdhury were among the discussants at the session moderated by BIGD Executive Director Dr Imran Matin.