Things took a turn for the worse for Soheb Khan when he came down with Covid-19. A private sector worker in the Tutpara-Gachtala neighbourhood of Khulna city, Soheb has not gotten paid in the last two months because he has been away from his office ever since he caught the deadly virus.
"I am in a lot of trouble trying to stay afloat with my family of four in a cramped room. I have borrowed from relatives and friends; nobody will lend me any more. My wife and children go without any food most of the time and two months' rent is overdue.
"The pandemic has made me a destitute," Soheb's voice shook in extreme frustration.
Informal and private sector people crippled with financial distress following lockdown-triggered income losses are now facing a fresh whammy – no way out to make ends meet and bear the burden of skyhigh treatment costs amid an alarming spike in Covid-19 infections.
Millions of such people are also clueless about what lies ahead for them as they have already exhausted their small savings to run families and there is no sign of any immediate relief from the pandemic's onslaught.
Like Soheb Khan, a large number of informal and private sector employees, businessmen, and workers in Khulna are all suffering severely because of Covid-19 and the subsequent lockdown enforced to combat it.
A former NGO worker, Sukamol Kundu (not his real name), a salaried employee, used to lead a decent life. He could even send some money to his parents every month.
But Covid-19 has now turned his life upside down.
"My salary was cut to half, supposedly because of the pandemic. I thought the bad days would be over soon but the bad became worse when I suddenly lost my job. Unemployed and running out of all savings, I had to move back to my village," said Sukamol.
Mithu Mia, who sells tea, samosa, and other snacks from a small shop near Daulatpur Rail Crossing in Khulna, is the sole bread earner for his family. He could not open the shop ever since the announcement of the district-wide lockdown. He has no money flow and he cannot meet the basic needs of his family.
"I have never been in such a disastrous situation. I can't put food on the table for my family, pay rent, or bear the education expenses of my two children," he said.
Md Anisuzzaman, the owner of a clothing shop in Khulna city, said his shop sold goods worth Tk14,000-15,000 every day, but lately, the market remains closed most of the time due to Covid-19.
He said he had no choice but to lay off one of his two employees.
Sheikh Shahidul Haque Sohel, general secretary of the Khulna branch of the Bangladesh Computer Society, said there are about 100 computer shops in Khulna metropolis where over 400 people work.
The computer shops have remained closed for a long time because of Covid-19, but owners have had to pay their employees. These technically skilled employees cannot be laid off. Meanwhile, interests on bank loans continue to pile up. The businessmen will go bankrupt if it goes on like this, said Shahidul.
Rebecca Sultana, a housewife from the Basupara area of the city, said her husband worked for an insurance company. His salary has not been paid for the past two months.
"We somehow passed one month with what little savings we had, but we now have no money to even buy daily necessities," said Rebecca.
Another victim of the pandemic, electronics businessman Raja Mollah said he rented the shop in January with a Tk2 lakh deposit, taking out a loan from an NGO, and the monthly rent was Tk5,000.
"The store remains closed during the lockdown. Every month, I borrow money from relatives and friends to pay the rent and I have to pay monthly instalments of the Tk2 lakh loan.
Rickshaw and van pullers say there are now no passengers. They are struggling to pay house rents, run their families and take care of their children.
At the beginning of the shutdown last year, charitable people provided some food and cash aid and they barely got by. But these people are now in dire straits with no such support.
Nargis Begum, 60, from Rupsa in Khulna, who used to work in a dockyard, lost her job after the lockdown had been enforced last Ramadan. To make ends meet, she along with her sick husband now has to beg for a living.
Mahfuz Ahmed (not his real name) from Gaibandha now lives in Bogura. He had served at a pharmaceutical company for more than 16 years before he was let go in December last year because of the ongoing pandemic. He worked as an area manager at that company before losing the job.
Mahfuz says it is very difficult to get another job during the pandemic.
"I decided to start a business. I invested Tk10 lakh in a clothing shop at Runner Plaza. But no sooner had the first wave of the pandemic subsided than the second wave overwhelmed us. The market has been closed ever since I began my business."
Mostaq Jamal, a resident of Godarpara area in Bogura town, had worked for Fareast Islami Life Insurance for several years. Their work had been stalled for months due to the pandemic. The insurance company's condition now is quite poor.
Mostaq said the pandemic destroyed everything. Socio-economic activities have come to a complete halt. Mostaq returned to his family home.
He has now started practising homoeopathy from home. He has a diploma in the eighteenth century alternative medicine. "But it is also difficult to earn this way as people do not want this stuff. But I have to carry on for a living," he said.
Mostaq said one just could not start a business if one wanted. "I am now contemplating selling the small piece of land I have. The pandemic has thrown me, along with my wife, two sons, and a daughter into the abyss."
He said the constant thought about the family expenses is making him sick. "God knows what the way out of this situation is."
Food or medicine?
Many people have no source of income during the strict lockdown. The low- and lower-middle-income people have been struggling to eat every day. The added cost of medicines for Covid-19 is making their days worse. Despite their miserable situation, many of them were compelled to take admission to hospitals when their situation became critical, said many patients at the Covid-19 unit at the Sher-E-Bangla Medical College Hospital in Barishal.
"I have lost my work due to the lockdown so I had to borrow money. My son has been suffering from fever but I cannot take him to the doctor because I can't afford it," said Monasef, a construction worker from Rajapur in Jhalakathi.
Sobuj, who came to the hospital from Gouranadi in Barishal, said "We have no income as we cannot move during the lockdown. Unfortunately, I had to bring my critically ill father to the Covid-19 unit at the Sher-E-Bangla Medical College. I am borrowing money on high interest from local lenders now."
The Business Standard talked with around 30 persons taking care of family in the Covid-19 unit of the hospital and 12 of them told TBS they had to borrow money from relatives or neighbours to come to the hospital.
"I have to pay an unusually high fare to bring my mother to the hospital by a private ambulance service due to the lockdown," said Shakila Khanom from Barguna.
"We have sold our gold ornaments for the treatment of my brother," said Shahida Akter from Bhola, who had to face a lot of hurdles to reach the hospital from Char Fashion area.
They had to spend five times more fare because of the lockdown.
There are only 22 intensive care beds in Barishal and three in Bhola, while four other districts under the division have none, sources said.
"We are trying our best for the treatment of Covid-19 patients at the unit," said Dr Saiful Islam, director of the Sher E Bangla Medical College and Hospital.
Rabiul Islam, a farmer in Satkhira, has been taking care of his younger brother Ariful Islam since their father died 12 years ago. Ariful was preparing to apply for jobs, but Covid-19 pandemic hit the country last year dashing his hopes.
Things have turned worse for him as Ariful has been undergoing treatment at the Satkhira Medical College Hospital with cold, cough and fever since 24 June which has cost his elder brother Rabiul Tk60,000-70,000 so far.
"I have become destitute," said Rabiul.
Rabiul Islam earns around Tk8,000 as a farm worker.
Satkhira Civil Surgeon Dr Md Hussain Safayat said, "Low-income people are often forced to go out for work amid the pandemic. If they are infected with Covid-19, they have to spend everything they have for treatment. A number of medicines are provided free of cost by the government, but patients have to buy some more medicines from outside. This is very difficult for a low-income family."
"Still, families of Covid-19 patients have to buy medicines and they have no other option. As a result, poor people are becoming poorer," he said.
Dr Manas Kumar Mandal, head of the Covid-19 unit of Satkhira Medical College Hospital, said, "If a Covid-19 patient stays at the hospital for 5-6 days, he needs to buy medicines worth around Tk15,000 from outside. Besides, there is a supply of medicines from the government, which are provided for free."
"Remdesivir injection is given to treat Covid-19 infection. Each dose of it costs Tk1,400-1,500. Another expensive medicine, which costs Tk11,000-12,000, is also used for treatment, but it is not used unless it is absolutely necessary," said the doctor.
"Patients who seek treatment in private hospitals and clinics have to spend more. You have to buy oxygen along with all the medicines there. Covid-19 patients require oxygen first," he added.
Basir Uddin, deputy director at Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, Satkhira, said the population of the district is 20.66 lakh, and 25.1% of them are living below the poverty line.
He also said there are no statistics of middle- and upper-income people in the district. People's income has decreased a lot during the Covid-19 pandemic as many have lost their jobs and closed down their businesses. The labour market witnessed job cuts as production at different companies has declined, leading to income erosion of day labourers.
"No survey has been conducted on the new poor yet, but considering all these factors, it can be said that the number of poor people in the district has increased further," said Basir Uddin.
TBS correspondents Anindya Haq in Khulna, Akramul Islam in Satkhira, M Jahirul Islam Jewel in Barishal and Khorshed Alam in Bogura contributed to this report