It has now been just over a year since the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Covid-19 a global pandemic, and the first cases of the virus were confirmed in Bangladesh. A year on, the Coronavirus has affected us all in different and unpredictable ways—and its tremendous impact remains difficult to fully comprehend.
Globally, over two million people have died from Covid—more than 8,000 of whom were Bangladeshis. In addition to this health emergency, the pandemic has had wide-ranging ripple-effects, touching virtually every aspect of social and economic life. In the past year, our country has seen an emergency on top of an emergency—Cyclone Amphan landed as we struggled to contain the virus, followed by July's severe floods that submerged communities and destroyed countless livelihoods.
With no roadmap for how to address this unprecedented crisis, the government of Bangladesh quickly mobilised to protect public health and build up the country's testing and treatment capacity. It also drew on partnerships with a range of national and international development organisations—from grassroots groups to the United Nations—to mitigate the virus's economic impacts. Throughout the past year, frontline workers, community leaders, and local government authorities have demonstrated inspiring courage and commitment during this difficult time.
Oxfam fights for a world in which all people can live in safety and dignity. We began working in Bangladesh in 1970, responding to the devastating cyclone which killed hundreds of thousands of people. The following year, during the Bangladesh War of Independence, Oxfam provided lifesaving aid to over 600,000 refugees, for which we were later honored by the government as a Friend of the Liberation War. In the 50 years since independence, we have never stopped standing beside the government and the people of Bangladesh during times of humanitarian crisis. I am proud to be a member of this organisation and to have continued this work over the past year as our nation confronted the Covid-19 pandemic.
Oxfam works with 23 partners throughout Bangladesh to fight for gender justice and economic equality, advocate for natural resource-dependent communities and respond to humanitarian emergencies, including the Rohingya crisis in Cox's Bazar and the devastating aftermath of Cyclone Amphan. As Oxfam's Bangladesh Country Director, I've had a broad view of the pandemic's impact on communities across the country—seeing firsthand the challenges and heartbreaks, bravery, adaptation and innovation this year has wrought.
Reflecting on this grim anniversary, I have three observations to share.
First: While responding to the pandemic, Oxfam has seen how the virus has created ripple effects that exacerbate preexisting vulnerabilities and disproportionately impact already marginalised populations.
Last year, during the early days of the pandemic, tens of thousands of workers in the garment industry—mostly women—were laid off as orders from global buyers fell dramatically. Many of these workers, who had no savings and were living hand-to-mouth, did not receive compensation and suddenly found themselves in dire circumstances. The situation was similar for domestic workers, tens of thousands of whom suddenly lost their jobs and were left without food and income to cover rent.
Small and medium enterprises across the country were also severely impacted by lockdowns—which cut family incomes and increased food insecurity, while also disrupting supply chains and creating cascading risks to women and children. Similar to trends we've seen across the world, levels of gender-based and intimate partner violence rose, and the severe economic shocks families experienced put children at greater risk of child marriage, child labor, and prematurely leaving school. All of these factors have devastating long-term impacts on both individuals and economic growth.
Our recent report, "The Inequality Virus," found that the pandemic has led to an increase in inequality in almost every country, for the first time since this type of information has been recorded. Billionaires worldwide regained their pre-pandemic wealth in just nine months, while recovery for the world's poorest will likely take over a decade.
This crisis has laid bare how interconnected we are. As we collectively work to repair its far-ranging damage—in Bangladesh and globally—we must remember the need for transformative policies to promote greater equality and mitigate the damage Covid-19 has inflicted on the most vulnerable members of our society.
Second: In the wake of unprecedented tragedy and disruption to normal ways of working, I have been inspired by the incredible innovation and resilience I've seen from Oxfam teams, our partners, and members of the communities in which we work.
For example, in Cox's Bazar Rohingya camps, Oxfam and our partners provide clean water and sanitation facilities and gender equality and livelihoods programs—to both refugees and members of the broader Ukhiya Teknaf communities. The camps are severely crowded—in many areas, up to 250 people share a single water tap, and social distancing is virtually impossible. To limit the risk of Covid-19 transmission, our team designed a new foot pedal-powered hand-washing station, which allows users to wash their hands without contaminating a tap or soap container. The women and girls who used the stations most frequently tested the prototypes and gave us feedback to improve the design.
We have also seen incredible leadership from local humanitarian actors during the pandemic. Across the country, Oxfam works with several local organisations, who we know are the fastest responders to any humanitarian crisis. I often do not find enough words to express how brilliantly our partners are ensuring vital support to communities and helping them become more resilient.
One such inspiring story comes from our long-standing partner, the SKS Foundation, which has helped establish women-led food banks in Gaibanda's Char communities. The pandemic has increased food insecurity across Bangladesh—and many Char areas have been particularly hard hit.
These food banks are an incredible example of community solidarity—members set aside handfuls of rice when they have a surplus and withdraw them again when they fall on hard times. Oxfam and our partners have supported SKS and 12 other organisations—all part of a climate-adaptation initiative known as REECALL—to develop 275 food banks that have helped over 30,000 people weather the food insecurity pandemic.
Finally, I am sure I was not alone in breathing a sigh of relief in January, when the government announced that it had purchased 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca-Oxford University vaccine and released its National Vaccine Distribution Plan for administering doses in Bangladesh. It has been wonderful to see those plans get under way as the nation moves forward with its initial target to vaccinate 130 million people—prioritising health workers, law enforcement and military, government officials, public representatives, and city employees. Last month, I was pleased to see an addendum to the plan, decreeing that foreign nationals residing in Bangladesh will be included in the nationwide vaccination programme.
This is an important step. Since the early days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Oxfam has been a leader in calling for the development of a vaccine that is free and available to all. This is a moral argument—but also a practical one. Covid-19 anywhere poses a grave threat to people everywhere, particularly as new virus strains proliferate. As the vaccine rollout continues, it is in everyone's interest to ensure that it is affordable, accessible, and widely available. In Bangladesh, this means paying particular attention to the barriers that marginalised and socially excluded groups like floating fisherfolks, workers in the tea gardens, indigenous communities living in the hills and forests, or the displaced people living in the chars or flood embankments—may face in receiving their dose.
Dipankar Datta is the country director of Oxfam in Bangladesh
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinions and views of The Business Standard.