THE working class people have been hit hard by the economic slowdown induced by the Covid pandemic, yet they are the ones most neglected in the government’s response to the outbreak. Following the most recent imposition of restrictions on public movement and social gathering, a large number of people dependent on daily earning are left alone with barely any support and relief for their survival. The little government support that exists is not reaching its intended beneficiary due to incompetency and flawed planning. On April 25, the government launched a national hotline for providing humanitarian assistance and food to the needy during the nationwide shutdown. The system was introduced to distribute basic food supplies to callers within 24 hours of the call for request. However, callers in severe economic distress from different city corporation areas including Dhaka, Chattogram and Gazipur have complained that despite making a call to the hotline they received no support for weeks. Since the launching of the programme, about 75,000 families in need from across the country have registered for relief while the Access to Information officials have handed over about 40,000 registered requests to local government offices for distribution of food after verification. Only about 19,000 relief seekers have so far received help.
When people in poverty struggling to survive with one meal a day, their request for food assistance to the government remains stuck in bureaucratic tangle. Officials at city corporations and local government offices claim that the verification process is taking longer than expected and causing the delay. Some also mention that they have not received any fund allocation for processing the food assistance request that came through the hotline. The delay or non-distribution of food to the relief seekers in desperate need sets yet another example of government’s faulty plan and inefficiency in relief distribution. This is not the first time that the government has floated extravagant plan to provide cash incentives and food relief for the poor during the pandemic. In 2020, the government made a plan to distribute cash assistance of Tk 2,500 through mobile financial services to 3.5 million families, but the plan was never realised to its full extent due to gross irregularities in the list making. The idea of 24 hour hotline for food assistance during the pandemic is a noble one, but it is of no use, if it is launched without an effective plan for execution.
The government response to the Covid pandemic has so far been biased towards rich and it is evident from the disproportionate support given to big businesses and industries. The national budget for the pandemic-hit year also exhibits similar bias. It is time that the government abandoned such pro-rich bias and truly stood beside the people in desperate need of food aid and cash incentive. In so doing, it must announce relief programmes with proper distribution plan and a meaningful anti-corruption mechanism to ensure that the programmes benefit the intended population in real terms.
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