COVID-19 and perspectives of the marginalised

by Farida Akhter | Published: 00:00, Apr 19,2020


Apparel workers block a road as they hold protest in Dhaka on April 15 demanding the payment of due wages during a general holiday that the government announced as a preventive measure against the COVID-19 spread.  — Agence France-Presse/Munir Uz Zaman

THE COVID-19 pandemic has affected lives of people disproportionately, particularly the women, the marginalised and people who remain ‘excluded’ for various reasons. The majority of people have no access to internet and no time to listen to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research daily updates on COVID-19 on how many people are infected or died from the disease. Characterising the genetic construction of COVID-19 does not necessarily mean that scientists already know how this strange and invisible virus could be behaving as a pathogen. Nevertheless, the COVID-19 pandemic has already started affecting lives of people in horrific ways. People’s lives are disrupted not only by social distancing and lockdowns, but by the fear of losing jobs, livelihoods, starvation and the collapse of public health infrastructure.

The marginalised people have no idea of what happened in Wuhan, China, Italy, Spain and the United States. They only know that since March 8, the expatriates who returned from Italy carried with them a disease that is highly contagious and kills people. Till now, April 18, the total number of infected cases is 2,144, the number of death is 84 and it shows an upward trend. Although this is quite worrying to the middle class, for ordinary people, the numbers are literally meaningless as they suffer and die in much a greater number even by road accidents, of other diseases and from hunger and malnutrition. The miseries they are suffering are primarily structural, coupled with stark realities of socio-economic maladies, environmental disasters and ecological destruction.

In the middle of March, the government closed all educational institutions. Next, it announced a ‘public holiday’ beginning on March 26 till April 4 in all workplaces, public and private, and 10-day restrictions on the movement of public transports, including buses, auto-rickshaws, human haulers and ride-sharing services. Despite a ban on inter-district movement, thousands of people left Dhaka crowding the ferries on major river routes and buses on major highways especially for southern, western and northern districts. People suffered hugely on their ways because of mismanagement at ferry terminals and on roads. The ferry terminals on river routes were thronged by thousands of people while thousands of passengers got stuck on highways throughout the day. And all this happened violating the social distancing protocol needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The white-collar job holders, the middle class, understood the public holiday, a ‘stay at home’ measure as suggested by the World Health Organisation, and many followed the work-from-home strategy as they had to continue the work they were doing. They have houses, rented or owned, comfortable to be inside the houses and stay away from virus infection. These families also took a policy of not allowing the domestic helps in their houses as they were living in slums and bear the risks of being carriers of the virus. Flat owners declared restrictions on the movement of the residents of the building. The outbreak of the disease exposed the ugly side of the class-based society.

For the lower middle class and the poor, the closure of offices primarily meant a compulsion to leave Dhaka. The poor live in shanties in slums — hardly could they be called ‘home’. Many have families in rural areas; it is better to be with the family to maximise the meagre amount of money they have in their hands for food. To stay in the slum or in shared rooms is more expensive. Those who have nowhere else to go stayed on in the city. The declaration of ‘public holiday’ did not arrive with any support for maintaining their family. The public holiday kept on being extended. Now it is extended up to April 25 with an undeclared lockdown.

For the poor working-class people living in Dhaka, the ‘chhuti’ or holiday is only at the time of Eid, which will be in the last week of May. They take enough preparation for this ‘chhuti’ by saving money. But now they have to rush in a much unprepared way. Wherever they go, they are asked to ‘stay at home’, maintain social distancing, wash hands with soap and sanitiser as many times as possible and eat nutritious food so that they have immunity to fight this deadly disease.

The COVID-19 management includes preparation at the level of health care facilities offering coronavirus test, treatment of the infected through isolation, home or institutional quarantine and providing intensive care unit/ventilator support in cases of severe infection. It is hard to convince the poor that they could ever gain access to these services. These are for the rich, elite and the privileged.

No matter how we argue, the blatant existential questions for the poor and the excluded is not COVID-19, but the very conditions created by the global pandemic that has shattered their livelihood and lives in the context of the already precarious neo-liberal arrangement of survival and extinction, by which profit and privileges are distributed and a large number of people are structurally denied the right to live.


Loss of livelihood in rural areas

THE rural realities are rapidly transforming. UBINIG (Policy Research for Development Alternative) and Nayakrishi Andolon, the peasant-led biodiversity-based ecological agricultural movements are keeping eyes on areas where they are present. Social fabrics are melting down. An index could be the situation of the workers returning from the capital city to live in the village. Going back home meant no job and no income but this is merely only one of the aspects of the misery they have been thrown into. Workers who left villages earlier were forced to do so as a consequence of the decades of agricultural policy that favoured cities and urbanisation at the expenses of agriculture, rural life and livelihood. Now they are forced back in a much worse condition. Here are few cases that describe how the uncertain economic situation have destablised the family relations (UBINIG field information, 2020):

Kawser Begum works in the export processing zone in Pabna. Her husband is a van driver. Due to the lockdown, both of them are at home with their daughter. After a few days, her husband asked Kawser to buy rice, but she had no money. Now her husband gets angry at her as there is no rice to cook. At one point, she was beaten. She left the house and went to her parent’s house.

Rahima Begum’s husband is a day labourer. He has no work due to the lockdown. They are facing shortage of food. They cook once to cover three meals a day. The food means only rice with no vegetable or fish. Young children do not want to eat. Husband and wife argue with each other in desperation.

Shamsunnahar’s family has lost their homestead to river erosion in Tangail. Now they are temporarily living in other’s land. Her family earns by working as day labourers, but there is no work for them in the area. Living in this uncertain situation with no work, Shamsunnahar and her husband fight every day over money that they don’t have to buy rice, lentils etc. Her husband gets so angry that he even tries to physically assault her.

In Kushtia, women who worked in the mills and factories were able to maintain their families. Now the factories are closed. These women cannot provide food to their family members.


Conditions of slum dwellers

APPROXIMATELY 35 per cent of Dhaka’s population live in slums with poor sanitation, lack of electricity and limited water supply. The slum dwellers are mostly day labourers, rickshaw pullers, small business owners, factory and apparel workers, household helps, who rely on daily income. The Directorate General of Health Services gives instructions to maintain social distancing, avoid gatherings, maintain cleanliness, wash hands with soap and water and eat nutritious food as protection against the transmission of COVID-19, which is nearly impossible for them to maintain. The Directorate General of Health Services did not think of any coordination with other departments such as the Water Supply and Sewerage Authority for water and the disaster management ministry to ensure food supply.

Hajera works as an operator in a garment factory. Her husband also works in the same factory in the packaging section. They live in a slum. The factory is closed, so they are both at home expecting the factory to open anytime and continue the work. More importantly, they want to be sure that they will not lose their job. Their only son, aged seven years, lives with Hajera’s mother in Chuadanga. So she has to send money for him every month. But now she is faced with the threat from the land owner of the slum for paying the house-rent. She will also have to repay the grocery bought on credit. She received Tk 10,000 from the factory as salary of March and overtime payment for February. She paid back the grocery Tk 4700 and house rent Tk 3,600. The rest is not enough to survive. Her husband did not get his salary yet (Srambikash Kendra, 2020).

A newspaper report showed people of different occupations such as rickshaw pullers, garbage pickers, and house-maids cannot afford to stay at home. They have to work from morning till night to earn their bread. They have no way to avoid mingling with people living in the same slum. It is also very hard for them to maintain cleanliness.

Stigma against common cough, cold and fever

DESPITE the digital revolution, Smart phone explosion and more than 35 television stations, Bangladesh has miserably failed to disseminate essential information on COVID-19. As of February this year, there are 166.11 million registered phones in Bangladesh. Still, people hardly have access to educational information. People who think coronavirus infection is caused by ‘Korola’ (bitter gourd) are still there and no less in numbers. A woman living in slum found saying, as published in a national daily, ‘korolavirus’ spread from ‘korola’ (bitter gourd). ‘I thought this spread from korola, so I forbade everyone in my house from buying it’. Reaching her concrete information of the pandemic was not difficult at all if we take note of the degree of digitisation of the country.

Correct information did not reach to the common people, they understood that the COVID-19 infection has symptoms of cough, cold, sneezing, fever etc. They also learnt that it is highly contagious and they should avoid contact with people with such symptoms, even though it is the familiar flu. As there is a lack of testing facilities at the upazila and district level, the only way to know is through the symptoms. Anybody with cough is a potential COVID-19 patient and therefore a carrier of the deadly contagious disease. People are stigmatised, if they cough or catch cold.

Information from women’s network of Narigrantha Prabartana in six districts shows that people do not talk, go near to and misbehave with those having cough-fever symptoms. In Pabna, people going back to their villages from Dhaka are facing social isolation. Nobody talks to them because they have come from Dhaka and Dhaka is known to be a high risk zone for COVID-19.

Laboni Aktar and her sister went to their mother’s house in the village after the closure of their garment factory. They were not allowed to enter their house as they could be carrying the new coronavirus. Laboni went to her in-laws house, they called the police. The police locked her in a room as home quarantine. But no further health support was provided to her during her quarantine.

In all the cases narrated above, it is the poor and mostly women who are disproportionately suffering due to corona panic and by the imposition of lockdown. Till now, out of 2,144 total detected cases, about 68 per cent are men and 32 per cent are women. Does it mean that women are not tested enough, or the prevalence is lower among women for some reasons? Among the deaths, there are more men than women and most of them had co-morbidity. The analysis has not yet been done considering socio-economic class as contributing factor, but it will not be too far-fetched to assume that the poor are not even tested.

So they are suffering from the condition of lockdown.


Dolly Bhadra, Ajmira Khatun, Golam Mustafa, Rabiul Islam Chunnu, Rokeya Begum and Rasheduzzaman have collected information for the cases. Farida Akhter is the executive director of UBINIG and organiser of Nayakrishi Andolon.

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