Initially detected in Wuhan, China during December 2019, the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has so far spread across 199 countries and infected more than 800,000 people with confirmed deaths of over 42,000.
While it's difficult to predict the damage of Covid-19 outbreak precisely given the unknown nature of different variables, including how long would the virus continue to affect, responses from the government and markets etc., Covid-19 is surely taking its hefty toll on different economies. With order worth more than $1.5 billion being cancelled, the garment sector of Bangladesh, for instance, has been severely hit by the immediate impact of global Covid-19 crisis. Other sectors of the country are foreseen to be affected as well. However, the way we manage the situation would certainly dictate the future scenario.
While Bangladesh, as of now, has been lucky with around 60 reported cases of novel Coronavirus infected, we cannot write down that the number would not significantly increase in the coming days. We are now observing complete shutdown of activities, excluding some essential operations. In that regard, it's worth reviewing that countries, such as China, Singapore and Taiwan, have managed the situation very well without paying the high cost that Italy, Spain and other countries are paying.
Bangladesh can, therefore, draw lessons from two contrasting scenarios. At the same time, it's encouraging to note that the government has deployed law enforcement agencies during general holidays to ensure that people stay at home and this might be necessary to be continued for at least several weeks. The hypothesis that people would stay at home at their will has already proven to be wrong when the returnees from different countries violated the government directive to remain in self-quarantine.
The global economy, as we observe, has essentially come to a standstill to find a way out to contain Covid-19 and this means no new business for the garment sector soon. Furthermore, the confirmed order has been cancelled and many are expecting that there would be significant negative growth of the sector this year. As the sector provides bread and butter to more than four million people, they are likely to be severely affected.
In a situation of such exigency, the prime minister has already declared a supporting fund of Tk50 billion for the sector to meet the wages of its staffs. The measure from the top of the incumbent would indeed create optimism among the staffs of the garment sector. However, what's more important is to ensure that these four million people are being properly paid off and that the moral hazards do not affect the process.
Amid the crisis, the Central Bank of Bangladesh has avowed different measures – one of them is that loans would not be classified even if borrowers fail to repay until June 2020. While the measure seems to be good on paper, supported by conventional wisdom, it is notable that the banking sector of Bangladesh has been plagued with habitual defaulters and investment on assets that are invisible. The scheme, therefore, proposed by the Central Bank, shall be carefully executed without creating further burden on the economy.
As the shutdown of major activities have become new-normal, at least for the time being, the homeless, slum dwellers and daily wage earners are already facing severe consequences. When fulfilling the basic minimum has become a challenge, the cost of hand sanitiser and mask is putting further pressure on them. These groups shall be supported by the government through proper rationing and other measures. However, it's not at all expected or acceptable that administrative staff of the government would publicly humiliate people for not wearing mask.
Needless to say, despite the myriad difficulties are being presented by Covid-19, the doctors and nurses are working tirelessly to safeguard the patients. Their commitment to work comes along with a heavy psychological burden of their anxious families and the risk of being infected to Covid-19. As such, they are the ones, who deserve to get Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) first.
With the advent of new Coronavirus, we are flooded with the plethora of information and misinformation on social media, i.e., Facebook, twitter, YouTube and the like. The situation is unprecedented. People are confused as to which sources they may trust in. Fake and exaggerated information are often deliberately spread out to create xenophobic and racist chaos. While public awareness is important, the government and health agencies shall clear such confusions.
Be that as it may, it's time to be more responsible and disciplined instead of creating panic and spreading unverified information. There is no alternative to social distancing and staying at home. There is no other solution. At the same time, we, be it individually or in group, need to think about the people around us. On the other hand, the government might need to increase its support depending on the scale and duration of the Covid-19 crisis. While minimising the damage, the prime concern, now, should be how to keep the economy afloat in post-corona virus situation. We cannot be complacent and we need to act on time.
The author, Shafiqul Alam, is an environmental economist and former fellow at Ecologic Institute, supported by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, Germany