About 100.22 million people in the country are at risk of economic and health problems due to the novel coronavirus – of which 92.19 million are at economic risk, according to a recent survey.
Among the most vulnerable are 54 million people living in extreme poverty, the survey found.
The data came from a joint survey by Brac, DataSense and Unnayan Shamannay. The results of the survey titled "Covid-19 and the National Budget 2020-2021: Strategic Review for Low-Income People" were released at a virtual press conference on Monday.
Presided over by Brac Chairperson Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman, former governor of the Bangladesh Bank Dr Atiur Rahman was the chief guest at the conference. The research report was presented by iSocial Chief Executive Officer Dr Ananya Raihan at the conference moderated by KAM Morshed, senior director of Brac.
Ananya said due to the novel coronavirus, the income of about 74 percent of the families has decreased. "More than four lakh expatriates have already returned. It is feared that at least another 10 lakh will return."
Considering this situation, economists recommended adequate allocations, in the next national budget, be made for the health sector to cope with the impact of the novel coronavirus as well as for the poor – especially those who have just fallen below the poverty line.
Economists also recommended prioritising poor workers, employers and the informal sector in various steps taken by the government to revive the country's economy.
Recommendations were made to introduce cash assistance, for at least three years, for families in which wage-earning members lost income or died due to Covid-19. At the press conference, there were also recommendations for the introduction of a universal unemployment benefit scheme for the extremely poor and poor in the next financial year – and for other unemployed groups from the next financial year.
They also recommended that a universal identity system for citizens be created to make cash assistance and other services easily available – and to include all citizens in universal digital services so that they can avail the benefits of social security schemes, loans, savings, and insurance through public-private partnership.
Another recommendation was that at least one smartphone be arranged for every home, the cost of using the internet be decreased, and the tariff on computers and laptops be reduced.
The study found that 53.64 million people are extremely poor among those at economic and health risk. The number of the extreme poor at high economic risk is 47.33 million. In addition to this, 36.33 million are at high health risk.
At least one member of the 34.8 percent households surveyed had lost their job. Between mid-March and April 7, 1,116 factories were closed, and about 22 lakh workers lost their jobs.
Between March and May, average household income fell by about 74 percent. Workers in the informal sector, including day labourers, have suffered the most. The manufacturing sector has also been hit hard.
The report also paints a picture of misery in the health sector. It said there were only 0.53 registered doctors for every 1,000 people. There is a daily capacity to test 10,000 people for the novel coronavirus against demand to test 10 lakh per day. There are only 1.27 lakh seats in hospitals against the demand of 10 lakh. The allocation for the health sector is less than one percent of the GDP. It was recommended that it be increased to four percent.
Dr Hossain Zillur Rahman said, "A health-friendly, poor-friendly budget should be made for the next financial year on the basis of efficiency. It is not possible to bring big changes to the allocation to any sector in a year. It should be made clear in the budget discussion which sectors will be prioritised in the future."
He added that excluding government pensioners, spending in the social security sector is one to 1.5 percent of GDP. He suggested increasing the amount without a new list.
"Seventy-eight lakh primary students are being given Tk100 in scholarship, which can now be increased to Tk500. This will ensure that the aid reaches the right place," he said.
He proposed increasing the coverage of school feeding, ensuring primary health care in urban areas, and building one sadar hospital in each sadar upazila. He advised the government to handle the situation by including private sector entrepreneurs, civil society representatives and all other parties – not to walk alone in danger.
Dr Atiur Rahman said, "People have to be protected first. Then comes fulfilling dreams and happiness. So, this year's budget should be a budget for survival. The health sector is facing the biggest threat during this epidemic of Covid-19. The middle class is worried whether they will get medical care or not. The condition of the poor is even more miserable."
He said credible information about novel coronavirus infections is not available. "The real truth in such information should be revealed so that the people know their situation. Without faith in the health sector, investment will not come and our economy will not grow."
He added that the health sector should be prioritised. "Expenditures in this sector should be increased to four percent of GDP. However, doing it at once can lead to waste."
Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies Senior Research Fellow Dr Nazneen Ahmed said, "As low-income people, there are not only workers but also many small entrepreneurs at the bottom of the pyramid."
Criticising the 60 percent payment of workers despite government incentives, she said their housing and other expenses had not decreased.
She suggested bringing workers and small entrepreneurs under the incentive without giving cash assistance to big entrepreneurs. She also suggested making bicycles affordable.
Brac Institute of Governance and Development Executive Director Dr Imran Matin said, "Infrastructure and human resources need to be increased in the health sector to remove the public's fear. At upazila and rural levels, full-time doctors and healthcare workers, plus necessary medical equipment, should be available."