The pandemic has taken away his job and savings and now his ability to meet the nutritional needs of his only child. The physical and mental growth of the four-year-old daughter has thus become the greatest concern of Anas Ahmed amid his deepening financial hardship.
He had a decent job at an apparel buying house with a decent pay – Tk40,000 a month. The money was enough to provide his family of three with fish, meat, egg and fruits. Anas also used to buy milk, Horlicks and other food supplements for his daughter.
Having laid off, he spent out his savings but did not compromise on the food intake of his family. When days turned into months and then months into a year and he was yet to get another job, he started giving motorcycle rides to passengers to earn a living.
The money he earns is half of what he earned before the pandemic and that too is uncertain. Now the three members are subsisting mostly on lentils and rice.
Job loss and income loss inflicted by Covid-19 have led to food and nutritional deficiency of crores of people like Anas who have become poor or poorer.
Except for one-fourth of the population, who are rich or financially better-off, people have seen their income fall during the pandemic. Since expenditures on some other essentials have gone up, they spend less and less on food.
Government and private researchers found that families have reduced their food intake, in most cases by taking out sources of protein and fruits from their food list. Many families forego one meal a day.
According to a report published in January by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 39% people reduce spending on food when they find themselves in a sudden unexpected financial crisis.
Titled "Urban Socio-economic Survey", the report was based on information gathered before the pandemic.
It says 22% families eat less and another 17% eat low-quality food when faced with a financial crunch. Moreover, 20.64% people cannot afford to eat the items they like and 14.48% people consume less than what is required for good health.
The BBS report also points out 11.51% people in urban areas have no money to buy food and 8.22% people go to sleep hungry. Apart from them, many use savings or borrow in a crisis to buy food.
Only 20% of people have no impact of any disaster on their food consumption.
Experts say people lose productivity due to prolonged food and nutritional deficiency. So, they fear, even if the financial impacts of Covid-19 fade away, the national productivity will not get back to the pre-pandemic level.
Malnutrition will also hinder physical and mental development of children, passing on the impacts for generations to come.
A child's brain develops from when it is in his mother's womb until becoming two-year-old, and the first phase of the child's physical development ends when it is five, said Prof Sharmin Rumi Alim of the Institute of Nutrition and Food Science at Dhaka University.
So, the child will fall short of intelligence if their mother could not have adequate nutritious food during her pregnancy and until the child is two, and if the child suffers from malnutrition before turning five, she added.
Children have stunted growth in terms of weight and height for a lack of nourishment, Sharmin said, adding that they also fall behind other children in class and fail to achieve desired skills.
Economist Zahid Hussain said the ongoing second wave of the pandemic had worsened the situation of food and nutrition in the country. If it continues, the impact on human resources and productivity will mount.
For example, starvation for a month will have less effect on one's health than starvation for two months, he elaborated. It is possible to overcome a short-term impact, but long-term nutritional gaps will cause people to endure ramifications for generations.
Explaining how a lack of access to food can change the human output, Prof Syed Abdul Hamid, of the Institute of Health Economics at Dhaka University, said if people, who were well fed, could work for eight hours, those half-fed or with empty stomach would not be able to work as many hours.
If both the groups work for equal hours, productivity of the latter will be less.
Coping with financial hardship
People who had set aside cash for rainy days before the pandemic have already spent it out, as it has entered the second year. For many, debts have doubled as they have tried to cope with the crisis.
Support from the government and private sectors has dwindled too.
All these are squeezing financial means of more and more people to buy food.
The Citizen's Platform for SDG's, Bangladesh in a study on people, who lag behind others because of where they live and what they do, found that 81% families had reduced food expenditures in the pandemic.
More than 47% families eliminated protein from their food intake and 38% cut down on food items. About 7% families had two meals a day and 10% families were compromising on food for children.
A report published by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) and Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) showed that slum dwellers were spending 16.7% less on food after income had dropped because of the pandemic.
More than 2 % people were starving at least for an entire day a month, it said. Around 52% families did not have meat, 72% had no milk and 40% no fruits in their weekly menu.
Recommendations from experts
Experts have suggested that the government should expand the coverage of social safety net to prevent a deterioration of the nutritional situation.
They also call upon the authority to distribute food for adults and children in impoverished areas, especially slum areas.
Apart from rice, dal and cooking oil, people from lower middle-class should be able to buy eggs, milk and children's food items at a discounted price. Besides, the increase in prices of essentials should be contained to keep them under the purchasing capacity of the middle-class.
Economist Zahid Hussain said the government, if it wanted, could make cash transfers for people who were suffering from food deficiency.
There is enough food supply to deliver food as well but the government has not taken up any programme to ensure food distribution. And even if there is, inefficiency impedes implementation.
Last year, the government announced Tk 2,500 cash support to 50 lakh people each. At last 36 lakh people received the money but the support did not reach them timely. This time, the target is 36 lakh, Zahid said.
Sayema Haque Bidisha, director of research organisation South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM), said the impact of Covid-19 on health, nutrition and productivity would take long to be visible. But if not addressed, the issues will prevent Bangladesh from attaining Sustainable Development Goals.
Few people had balanced diet before the pandemic
A balanced diet for a day cost Tk 58 a person in Bangladesh, which is the lowest among eight countries in South Asia. More than half of the population could not spend that much money on food even before Covid-19 broke out in the country.
In a recent report, the World Bank said Bangladeshis take on an average 1,052gm food a day, 27% less than what is needed.
The consumption of green leafy vegetables is 36% of the need and other vegetables 54%.
Fruit intake is 23% of the required amount and dairy products only 13%.
Bangladesh is at the bottom in South Asia in terms of consumptions of fruits and dairy products.