THE government’s decision to suspend the relief operation that was meant to help the poor during the general holiday ordered as a preventive measure against COVID-19 appears premature as the economy is still struggling to recover from the sudden closure of all activities. Since March, the disaster management and relief ministry, amidst allegations of corruption, has run a countrywide relief programme for rural and urban poor. Under this programme, as the ministry reports, it has distributed 22,000 tonnes of rice, Tk 90.16 crore in cash for purchasing essential goods and Tk 23.94 crore for purchasing food for children. In addition, about 50,00,000 poor families were given Tk 2,500 each through mobile banking. Despite the assistance, a recent BRAC survey shows that household income has declined by 51 per cent among the respondents during the general holiday. The assumption that people’s purchasing power will immediately increase with the resumption of economic activity, therefore, appears flawed and the government should not rush to suspend relief programmes without assessing the lasting impact of the COVID-19 situation on poor households.
Although the government has ended the general holiday, the outbreak has worsened in recent times with the number of infection doubling in the past month. In this heightened situation, businesses are struggling to gain its regular rhythm and it is evident in the World Bank’s economic prospects projection. The apparel sector, which is a major export-earning sector, talks about the possibility of a large-scale job termination as industrial production is hampered by COVID-19 disruption. Remittance inflow may also decline which could affect thousands who depend on remittances. An assessment of the Centre for Policy Dialogue says that the Tk 5,000 crore stimulus package declared for export-oriented industries have hardly benefitted workers as there were retrenchment and irregularities in wage payment. Many people in rural and urban areas have also complained that they did not receive any food or cash aid from the government as local government representatives have in many cases enlisted people with partisan affiliation and they can barely manage with local help. In this context, the government’s decision to suspend relief programmes seems unwise and carries the risk of pushing more people into poverty.
For a country with 34 million people living below the poverty line, mostly without work for about three months, the government support was inadequate and marked by corruption. Instead of suspending relief programmes, the government must expand social safety programmes for the poor until the COVID-19 threat is contained. In doing so, it must investigate the allegation of corruption in relief distribution and bring perpetrators to justice. Without cash support and food aid for the poor, it will be difficult for the government to maintain the social distancing protocol which is badly needed to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
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