The recent outbreak of Covid-19 is an unprecedented global issue, leading many to contemplate difficult questions that are plaguing all of humanity. With rising numbers of cases being identified and related deaths, Bangladeshis are collectively bracing themselves for the worst. Granted, the primary concerns now are more existential than economic, but it is not something we should ignore altogether.
For a country like Bangladesh where 24.3 percent live under the national poverty line, with a large proportion involved in low skilled wage labor, the implications of the lockdown will be far reaching. During crises such as these, liquidity becomes an increasing source of concern particularly when the quarantine of bank notes receives serious consideration to curb transmission of the virus.
A possible way to work around this concern is the use of Mobile Financial Services (MFS). With 81.9 million registered clients across the country (including formal and informal workers, businesses and service industries), MFS are well placed to serve their collective needs.
With the country under total lockdown, no worker in the informal sector has been able to go to work from March 26. For daily wage workers, the lockdown means that they are now deprived of their only source of income. As daily wage earners have no savings and life is now not good for them. Day laborers, construction and transport workers as well as barbershop workers, domestic helps, floating hawkers, small shop owners, rickshaw-pullers, beauty parlor workers, street vendors and similar workers badly need work to sustain their lives.
Thus they urgently need aid from the government and other organizations. It appears they are more worried about their survival than Covid-19 which is the culprit.
The lockdown has locked their lives, which are difficult even in normal times. Government and non-government offices, courts, educational institutions, shopping malls, small shops, hotels, restaurants, tea stalls and construction sites have closed down shattering lives of workers to an unimaginable degree. With no work and no savings thousands of workers are in dire straits.
Rich people can manage to store food and can now spend some time at home with their families. But for the working class people, a prolonged unemployment will need sustained food aid by the concerned authorities and organizations working for the people's welfare in normal times like BRAC, Manusher Jonno, Rotary and Lions clubs. Moreover, the loss of income also affects their hygiene and nutrition, thereby making them more susceptible to the virus. Workers and their families have little to no access to quality medical care. But the informal sector contributes significantly to the country's economic growth.
Bangladesh is one of the world's most densely populated countries, and that density is most evident in refugee camps, urban slums and prisons. The people living in these places are at higher risk given the highly transmissible nature of the virus, coupled with lack of adequate facilities such as sufficient water and sanitation.
Recently, Cox's Bazar reported its first case, raising fears for over a million Rohingyas who languish in flimsy tents tightly squeezed together across the refugee settlements. In the camps, sanitation is a constant challenge, health facilities are rare, and emergency facilities can be non-existent.
The only way to protect the refugees is to relocate them to areas where social distancing is possible, where water, soap and sanitizers are in adequate supply, and with suitable medical facilities nearby. However, any relocation and redesign of camps must be done after ensuring meaningful participation of those affected.
In a situation where the covid-19 virus has overwhelmed some of the world's best resourced healthcare systems, Bangladesh like other developing countries must brace for the worst. Any hopes that the country may somehow avoid the crisis have been dispelled by the confirmation of 70 cases and eight deaths. One report written by Bangladeshi epidemiologists and public health academics estimates that half the country could ultimately be infected, and the final death toll could rise to as high as half a million.
As leaders around the world are discovering, their quick and timely response to this crisis is crucial, and given people's lives and healthcare are at stake, it's all the more important that human rights are at the centre of the response. Also Bangladesh has the most crowded prisons anywhere in South Asia. On average, there are more than twice as many prisoners as detention facilities.
There is only one doctor for every 10,000 prisoners. The authorities have taken the welcome step of releasing the leader of the opposition for six months, but they are yet to implement measures that several other South Asian states have taken to reduce overcrowding. About 70 percent of the country's prison population is still awaiting trial (pre-trial detention is meant to be used as a restrictive measure of last resort) and there should be a presumption of release in such cases.
They should also consider early or conditional release for those most vulnerable to the infection, including older detainees, or those who have already served a portion of their prison sentence and those who qualify for early parole, if they no longer pose a threat to public safety. Prisoners who remain in detention must also have access to the same standards of health care that are available in the community, including when it comes to testing, prevention and treatment of covid-19.
Everyone has the right to "the highest standards of physical and mental health," as guaranteed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, to which Bangladesh is a state party. The state's obligations include efforts to prevent, treat and control the effects of the covid-19 pandemic in the country. The WHO has said they have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. However, despite having had time to prepare, testing in Bangladesh is still rare which risks concealing the true scale of the outbreak.
There are an estimated two million people living in 14,000 slums across Bangladesh who have similar reasons to be fearful. According to one study, more than 40 percent of slum dwellers have no choice but to use unhygienic and unsafe toilets. Many also lack access to sufficient and safe water that is essential for protection against covid-19. The informal settlements are home to many low-wage garment workers, street vendors and rickshaw-pullers on daily wages whose livelihoods are imperiled by the current crisis.
Because of their inability to make ends meet during the lockdown and access affordable and timely healthcare, they are at high risk of both infection and starvation harrowing prospects that neither the government's public health nor economic response appear prepared for. We don't know what the true impact of the covid-19 crisis will be.
What we do know, however, is that the wealthiest countries are struggling to cope. For Bangladesh, which has neither the economic means nor the public health resources needed, there is even less room for failure. This makes it all the more important that its response protects everyone, including those who are at the greatest risk.
How exactly this pandemic will alter our world remains to be seen, but the impression it leaves will be indelible. The way we look at the world around us will have to adjust as we settle into the new normal, and mobile financial services can play a small but significant part. But for it to do so, some issues need to be kept in mind.
Many in our country are still reluctant to make the switch from tangible cash to mobile money due to inertia MFS can take this opportunity to propagate this behavioral change and take us forward towards a cashless society. In addition to increasing the accessibility to MFS, the government should also maximize its adoption of electronic payment services for payouts such as social security payments, salaries of government employees etc.
Lastly, MFS organizations must ensure the safety of their agents. They are the backbone of the network and often serve as the sole point of access to MFS for the poor. It is not clear at this stage what protection mechanisms are being put into place for these workers. In the event of an absence or unavailability of agents, the MFS organizations should have a detailed contingency strategy. Keeping this in mind, MFS organizations should invest enough time and resources to update their clients in detail on how to adapt to the crisis without interrupting their services.
The writer is a columnist.
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