The coronavirus outbreak affecting the livelihoods of the country’s majority population has pushed a large number of vulnerable people down to the poverty line.
The number of new poor people across Bangladesh, according to an assessment by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies research director Binayak Sen, will be no less than 24 million (8 million in urban and 15.5 million in rural areas).
Thus the virus outbreak, mostly affecting workers of the informal sectors, has already threatened to push up the overall poverty rate to 33.2 per cent from 24.4 per cent and has raised the fear of hunger, malnutrition and absolute poverty, Binayak said
In a recent interview the economist, who made the assessment for the Planning Commission under the ministry of planning, shared his thoughts with New Age about the unprecedented crisis caused by the virus outbreak.
More than a month has meanwhile elapsed since the general vacation enforced by the government to ensure social distancing to check the spread of the virus that originated in China in late December and has spread to most of the world emerging as the most deadly pandemic after the Spanish flu that killed five million people in 2018 and 2019.
Poverty rose sharply due to the coronavirus menace at a time when the country was already struggling to accelerate the rate of poverty eradication, Binayak said.
Binayak observed that the growth elasticity of poverty was not working as the yearly average poverty reduction rate had dropped from 1.7 per cent between 2005 and 2010 to 1.2 per cent between 2010 and 2016.
He welcomed the government plans to expand the social safety net programme to arrest the rise in poverty amid the coronavirus outbreak but feared that the programme might not yield much benefits since the system was flawed.
Referring to the old-age and widow allowances, he said that studies showed that 50 per cent beneficiaries were non-poor.
In the age of digitisation the government is yet to prepare something like ‘Aadhaar cards’ introduced by India to ensure food safety for all and a database of owners owning cottage industry so that stimulus could be given to them without any bureaucratic hassle, he noted.
He suggested that a new system should be devised along with the present one to shield the real vulnerable people from the vicious cycle of poverty.
Side by side, he said, the shutdown needed to be eased gradually, through a coordinated approach, for the country’s manufacturing sector, especially the RMG industry that employs some 40 lakh workers and accounts for over 80 per cent of the county’s $40 billion export income.
He lamented the absence of any such coordinated approach in dealing with the situation thus resulting in the ordeal for RMG workers on March 4-5 due to the cancellation of the factory reopening decision by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association.
It is true that our country is not smart like South Korea and Vietnam in tackling the virus outbreak but a coordinated approach should have been there to keep the market economy going, he commented.
Binayak hastened to add that lack of coordination was also acute in the country’s health sector.
A huge investment is needed to overhaul the country’s health sector so that the government can ensure universal health care for all — regardless of millionaires and paupers, he emphasised.
Referring to a report by the United Nations Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific, he noted that countries having universal health coverage were doing well in tackling the coronavirus outbreak.
He further noted that it was unfortunate that no universal health care system grew in the country’s 50 years of existence because of too much of emphasis on the private health care system.
That the public health sector expenditure in the national budget has fallen to .08 per cent of the GDP from .09 per cent over the years is not acceptable at all, he said.
Want stories like this in your inbox?
Sign up to exclusive daily email
More Stories from Interview