A ferry with migrant workers arrive at the Mawa Ferry Ghat as they are heading to Dhaka after government has eased restriction on garment factories and some other sectors amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Munshiganj district, Bangladesh, 30 April 2020.
A ferry with migrant workers arrive at the Mawa Ferry Ghat as they are heading to Dhaka after government has eased restriction on garment factories and some other sectors amid the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, in Munshiganj district, Bangladesh, 30 April 2020.Reuters

How Bangladesh tackles the COVID-19 pandemic is a matter of significant interest to the global community for a number of reasons: Bangladesh is the 8th most densely-populated country of the world, having 1252.6 residents per sq km according to World Population Prospects 2019 published by the United Nations. It is the second largest garment exporter. It has made remarkable improvements in several development indicators and achieved moderately high growth rates despite governance and institutional shortcomings and corruption over the last three decades.

Bangladesh is an important part of the global supply chain as its garment sector produces goods for many multinational companies of the world. These multi-national companies originating mainly in the developed countries will eagerly look to how Bangladesh overcomes the pandemic. At the same time, 4 million garment workers will remain out of work until the economic activities resume, which would strain the country’s economy badly while garment sector earns about 80% of its foreign currency.

In Bangladesh the first case of COVID-19 was detected on 8 March 2020— much later than China and Europe. In India, Pakistan and Afghanistan the first case detected was on 30 January, 22 February and 24 February respectively. That means Bangladesh had the scope to perceive the gravity of the pandemic and take prudent measures ahead of time.

The graph below prepared by Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) of the Johns Hopkins University, presents the trends in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh until 2 May.

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As can be seen from the graph, the rate of rise in the number of COVID-19 cases until 23 March was increasing but not exponential. From 24 March to 2 April the curve was almost flat. From 3 April it again shows an increasing trend until 20 April except 11 April. After 20 April, the rate of rise looks slightly smaller. However, from 27 April the curve shows an increasing rate again. This scenario tells us that the period from 8 March to 23 March for Bangladesh, was the time of high alert. And then, over the period from 24 March to 2 April Bangladesh had an opportunity to keep the curve flat or at least prevent it from being steep as it is now. It would be possible for Bangladesh to contain the spread of COVID-19 if it made right decisions on right time, proper announcements and took prudent measures in a concerted and coordinated manner.

There are a number of factors experts mention which were crucial for the spread of the virus. Many expatriate Bangladeshi workers returned to Bangladesh after the outbreak. The countries such as Italy, China and some Middle-Eastern countries from where they returned, were badly affected. Bangladesh government planned to quarantine them but didn’t make proper arrangements. The extremely poor arrangements angered the expatriates and unpleasant incidents took place. Thus, the quarantine programme was not successful. The returnees scattered over many districts of Bangladesh, which is the likely cause of the spread of the virus in many parts of the country, including the capital city.

As soon as COVID-19 broke out, most Middle-Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia suspended congregational prayers in mosques. But in Bangladesh, a country of moderate Muslims, certain fanatics took to the streets to demonstrate against any possible government declaration to postpone congregations in mosques. The government did not dare to ban or postpone congregations in mosques officially. Statements like ‘it is advisable that we do not say our prayers in congregations until the pandemic is over’ were made from government and non-government bodies.

On 23 March, the Bangladesh government announced ‘public holiday’ from 26 March to 4 April. Following this announcement, tens of thousands of people set off from the capital city and regional towns to villages or home towns. Although the announcement includes a note of advice for ‘staying at home’, the government failed to make people realise the gravity of the pandemic and that it made a wrong choice of words (‘public holiday’ or ‘general holiday’) in the announcement.

He [Prof. Ali Riaz] also observes that in giving more priority to making money than the life of the workers, the garment industry owners not only demonstrated inhuman behaviour but also risked the public health of more than 160 million people of Bangladesh.

The editorial of The Daily Star, a national daily of Bangladesh on March 26, expressed deep concern: “We are worried at the way hundreds of people left the capital after the government announced a ten-day general holiday…. the declaration of a "holiday" could be self-defeating. As hundreds of city-dwellers boarded buses, trains and launches to go to their village homes, we fear that this could further help spread the virus throughout the country.... What the government should have done instead was declare a medical emergency, raise awareness among the public about the importance of staying in their homes, and publicise the WHO directives about travelling and personal hygiene, including washing hands properly and frequently, as much as possible.

The garment industry which employs 4 million workers, went on closure too under the purview of the declared ‘public holiday’ and many of its workers went home to stay there until 11 April. Meanwhile, Bangladesh government declared a package of US$ 558 million of soft loan for the garment owners to pay wages to their workers during the pandemic and suddenly we witnessed an influx of working-class people into the cities and their satellite towns. The following two pictures show this influx of the workers.

The Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) had asked the workers to join the workplaces immediately. Why were they called upon to join their work during the lockdown? Why did the workers fear the loss of wages and loss of jobs while the government declared a stimulus package of US$ 558 million for the garment owners to pay wages?

Ali Riaz, a professor of politics and government at Illinois State University explains: The workers have preferred livelihood to life. They have no reason to believe that they won’t lose their jobs and that they will receive their wages if absent from the workplace when they have been asked to start working. The professor poses some questions like ‘What has the government done for the workers so far that would convince them that the government is there to stand beside them? How many of the ultra-poor people of the country have received the relief food so far?’ He also observes that in giving more priority to making money than the life of the workers, the garment industry owners not only demonstrated inhuman behaviour but also risked the public health of more than 160 million people of Bangladesh.

As soon as the pictures of workers’ influx into cities during lockdown were published in newspapers, there arose a huge public outcry in social media. Then, following a government intervention, the ‘joining work’ order was cancelled and the workers had to return homes the following day. There was hardly any transport and many workers travel miles after miles on foot. Many workers were not let in their rented houses by the landlords in the fear of the coronavirus. Therefore, the greed of the owners, the weakness of the government control, coordination and management significantly increased not only the spread of the virus but also the miseries of the working class in Bangladesh.

Very recently, on 18 April, when the number of COVID-19 rose to 2,144 and the number of deaths to 84, thousands of people gathered to attend the namaz-e-janaza (the prayer for the deceased) of the leader of an Islamic organisation defying government orders to maintain social distancing and self-isolation.

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Lack of preparedness was acute in Bangladesh. Health workers were not provided with adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). Doctors and nurses refused to work without PPE while authorities tended to force them to work. Contradictory information provided by the health minister, concerned government departments and the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) created confusion in the people. There has always been a lack of coordination among different government bodies and experts in dealing with the situation. It is understandable that Bangladesh has limited financial resources, a poor healthcare infrastructure and that it has no universal healthcare system in place but a greater degree of prudence, proper planning, efficient management, proper coordination between different government departments, manufacturing/importing PPE and testing kits at the early stage, conducting tests in large numbers and successfully motivating the people for physical distancing and self-quarantine measures would be able to contain the COVID-19 to a greater extent.

The prime minister announced a series of stimulus packages to tackle the pandemic. So far, her government has allocated more than 3.5% of its GDP under various programmes besides the sum of USD 588 million meant for exporting industries, which is 0.3% of the GDP. This money is being channeled through a refinance scheme operated by Bangladesh Central Bank. Loan proceeds will be used to pay workers’ salaries, expected to benefit 4 million workers for a three-month period. The allocations put forward by the government are commendable. It has allocated more India, Pakistan and Indonesia. While Bangladesh’s allocation for the pandemic as a percentage of GDP is close to 4%, India’s, Pakistan’s and Indonesia’s allocations are 1.1%, 2.72% and 2.8% respectively. However, the caveat about Bangladesh is that the programmes it has undertaken seem to be failing not only because of unpreparedness, inability to ensure quarantine and physical distancing, lack of coordination, inefficiency as well as corruption.

In order to make a proper utilisation of the taxpayers’ money, and an efficient and fair transfer mechanism to improve the life of the poor in the future Bangladesh must improve its governance and political institution, and strengthen democracy.

Bangladesh’s effort of tackling the pandemic has a phenomenon which is not visible, to the best of my knowledge, in other countries facing the pandemic. From the beginning of the declaration of the stimulus package, we have seen news items of the misappropriation of relief rice almost every day in Bangladesh newspapers. On 16 April 16, Prothom Alo reported: “There is no sign of any end of the misappropriation of relief rice. From last Monday to last Wednesday alone, the local administration and law-enforcing agency have discovered new cases of misappropriation of relief rice amounting to 2, 257 sacks of rice from 10 districts. Earlier, from 8 April to 13 April, 124 tonnes of embezzled rice were seized by the police.” The paper also reported that the local administration recovered 1.59 tonnes of relief rice meant for Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) programme.

Bangladesh is yet to reach its peak of the COVID-19—the changes in the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths are still irregular although the fatality rate is lower than India, Indonesia and Pakistan. Experts suspect that the number of infected people would be much higher if adequate tests were conducted. The capacities of conducting COVID-19 tests per day in Indonesia, India and Pakistan are 12 000, 75 000, 20000 respectively while Bangladesh is seen to conduct only 5,827 tests in the last 24 hours totaling 76, 066 as of 2 May.

Let’s look at two other estimates of COVID-19 tests conducted by some countries of which some have very high numbers of cases such as USA, UK, some have comparatively low fatality rate such as Russia and Germany, and some are comparable to Bangladesh such as Pakistan: Bangladesh has conducted 0.005% of its population for COVID-19 while this figure for Germany, Switzerland, Russia, Canada, USA, UK, Sweden, Pakistan, India3.109%, 3.100%, 2.424%, 2.148%, 1.906%, 1.244%, 1.215%, 0.105%, 0.063% (published by Worldometers (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries) as of 30 April).

In daily tests conducted per thousand people as well, Bangladesh lags behind: Russia, New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, United States, South Korea, Pakistan have conducted 1.545, 1.18, 1.164, 1.078, 0.922, 0.062, 0.036tests per thousand people on 1 May while Bangladesh has done only 0.034 (ourworldindata.org).

In order to prevent the spreading of the virus, a large number of tests need to be conducted each day and those tested positive need to be isolated. If not, there is a possibility of unexpectedly high number of COVID-19 positive cases in Bangladesh, which would be beyond the capacity of the government to tackle with the poor health infrastructure and management it has in place. It is, therefore, imperative that Bangladesh ramp up the capacity of conducting COVID-19 tests per day immediately so that it may forecast the number of infected people and take necessary measures ahead of time.

In order to reduce the strain of the poor and to ward off a possible famine, the Bangladesh government must make sure that the cash and relief materials reach the targeted people. For this, the government must work in collaboration with all political parties and the civil society because the involvement of opposition parties and civil society would create checks and balances, which in turn would prevent misappropriation of the relief materials mentioned above. Bangladesh, like any other nation, must look forward beyond the current pandemic.

In order to make a proper utilisation of the taxpayers’ money, and an efficient and fair transfer mechanism to improve the life of the poor in the future Bangladesh must improve its governance and political institution, and strengthen democracy.

Tarun Chakravorty is Visiting Faculty, Economics, Siberian Federal University, Russia

This article appeared in South Asia Journal and has been reproduced her in concise form