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Md Alam runs a bicycle repair shop in the capital’s Madhubagh Jhilpar area. On Monday noon, he was seen standing anxiously in front of his closed shop. He said, “I reopened the shop after the last year’s lockdown (general holidays). Then they began digging up the road to renovate the drains before business could return to normal. And then as work on the road ended, the lockdown came.”

Md Alam went to his village during the last year’s general holidays. He kept his shop closed for about three months. His landlord waived one month's rent but he had to pay rent for the other two months.

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This time the government, however, did not use words like ‘lockdown’ or ‘general holiday’ in its circular issued on Sunday, It stated a ban has imposed on movement and communication for a week. But, the circular said all kinds of communications including road, railway, waterways and domestic flights will remain suspended during this period. The ban, however, is not applicable to transportation involving production and services providing facilities. Foreigners and passengers from abroad will also be out of the purview of the ban.

All government, semi-government and autonomous offices, courts, private offices will only carry out urgent activities. They will arrange own transportation. Industries, factories and construction will continue to work. They will arrange transportation for their workers. Field hospitals will have to be set up for the workers of the factories of BGMEA (Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association) and BKMEA (Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association).

At the end of the day, the people who constitute 85 per cent of the labour forces in the informal sector, are going to fall in misery again. Last year, people living on daily wages had to search for food at every corner of the capital during the long general holiday. Experts feared that if the restriction lasts long, the same scenario would resurface. Many think the government didn’t take any lessons from the last year.

Meanwhile on Tuesday, the government announced that public transport services can resume operating in Dhaka, Chattogram, Gazipur, Narayanganj, Cumilla, Rajshahi, Khulna, Sylhet, Barishal, Rangpur and Mymensigh city corporation areas from Wednesday.

On the other hand, panic buying hit various super shops and groceries in the capital with middle-income people going on a shopping spree. The panic buying among the middle class was surprising as there was no news of any shortage of daily essentials n the market or any hassle in availing commodities during restriction. This panic buying will cause danger for the lower income bracket people.

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Regarding this, economist Wahiduddin Mahmud, in a social media post on 3 April, wrote, “Some traders are blamed for raising the price of commodities ‘unnecessarily’ during Ramadan. If price of commodities could actually be increased ‘unnecessarily’, that means the traders have been kind enough to the consumers by not raising the prices at other times of the year. So, they deserve praise. There is an issue of demand in the market. It’s true that traders sometimes try to take advantage of demand unfairly. But the affluent don’t show much restraint since they have purchasing power and buy as much as they can without looking at the price. If they restrained themselves from purchasing, traders will have less opportunity to increase prices and all can share the food that has high demand and limited supply. So, can one simply call upon traders only to show tolerance and restraint and warn them of punishment?”

Wahiduddin Mahmud further wrote, “The words of the father of economics Adam Smith should be kept in mind and that is traders never meet together except for conspiring against the buyers. Perhaps, the minster kept this in mind (minister Obaidul Qauader told a press conference on 3 April that a group of traders increase commodities price, which is a punishable crime.) However, all have some responsibility to make market economy more humanitarian.”

One year experience

There is no alternative to restricting the movement of people to prevent coronavirus spread. But, if the city’s low-income people including shop and hotel staff, mechanics, rickshaw pullers, rickshaw-van pullers, vegetable and fruit vendors can’t go out, how will they survive? Besides, if the economy slows down, the overall demand also drops. And the impact remains after the restriction is lifted. That is what we experienced last year.

The reality is that workers of the informal sector constitute the majority. These workers faced more crises during last year’s general holidays. The government distributed relief to tackle the situation, but allegations of irregularities surfaced in relief distribution. However, if there is a list of the poor and unprotected people, it possible for the government to tackle such crisis easily. Like the Aadhaar Card of India, a digital identification containing details of these people is necessary in Bangladesh. Unfortunately, making the list has not been possible despite several years of effort.

This report appeared in the print and online edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Hasanul Banna

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