Published:  12:06 AM, 30 July 2020

Pandemic-exacerbated social inequalities and potential way-out

Sahana Khatun, the proprietor of a tea stall in a gate of a Dhaka slum, venomously remarked to a piece of TV news, "Where is a coronavirus? I don't see any; I do look for it every day!" While viewing that telecast, I was stumbled by her fuming comments and questions and was trying to synthesize those in my mind. What triggered her anger so strong? Perhaps this pandemic has shortened her tea-business from making 200 cups to 20 cups each day rolling her in an economic pandemic with hungry bellies both at home and at her tea stall. Perhaps she has babies unfed, a mother without medicine, a husband with disabilities, or so on.

In my usual conversation with my Boro Apa (my eldest sister) over the phone, she was expressing her deep anguish about her recent shipment of the rented flat a few months past. She added that if she could have shifted it right now, she could have hired such flats with rent at least three or four thousand less. She concluded with a sobering voice that she noticed it to the Bariwala (house-owner) but the covetous man, in her angry view, did only lowered the rent one thousand taka which are, in her estimation, an injustice to them as there are thousands of To-Let notices hanging in almost every houses nearby.

These scenarios explicitly brought out the present economic conditions of society. The seemingly uniform and devastating attitude of this roving-pandemic killing thousands across the platitude has its dearth response on different economic men and women. Historians opine that inequality maneuvers social gaps which make a portion of people mal-nutritious and marginalized causing such recurring pandemics and again, as a result of such pandemics, disparities in the society rise making it a circular route of a pandemic and inequality cycle.

Practically, people are losing their jobs or having little or no pay for longer periods which is making them leave their rented houses. Again stories came out in the newspaper pages or in the newsfeed of social media that people are running away from their houses at night departing their belongings as they became unable to pay the house-rents. Again harsh stories like seizing stuff or students' certificates to make them pay house-rents are also evident.

As one of the columnists of the Guardian of UK specified three months earlier, according to verified studies, the pandemic may "turn back the clock 30 years on global poverty" with half a billion people to be again pressed below the poverty line. A King College of England's professor further whistled the alarm an upcoming "poverty-tsunami". Now, according to a UN study, more than 70 percent of the world's population is living with rising income and wealth inequality.

Secretary-General of the United Nations (UN), Anthony Guterres, in his Nelson Mandela lecture on July 18, 2020, highly alarmed the word of being aware of an upsurge of an inequality-pandemic. The lecture was itself named "Tackling the Inequality Pandemic: A New Social Contract for a New Era". He addressed in there that with the free-fall of the world economies and deepest recession after the second world war or since the 1870s by a microscopic virus which brought the world on its knees, issues of social injustice further claims to be in the spotlight.

This virus has taken away livelihoods of the most vulnerable groups of the society, especially from lower-income and middle-income populaces and marginal communities. Indigenous communities, migrants, refugees, and minor communities are among the hardest-hit as well. The Gini Coefficient value, which is a parameter of measuring social inequality, showed Bangladesh was with medium social inequality before the pandemic did landfall, Bangladesh was with scores 32.4. But conditions have severely degraded during the pandemic, pushing out more than 40% of the population below the poverty line from previously 21% of the population grounded on a poverty level of $1.90 a day and a reduction of 10%, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD) estimates. Older people and people with disabilities are experiencing the hardest survival of their lifetime.

However, questions loom large- what should the state do to bring back Sahara Khatun's economic and mental serenity? For the millions more like her in the country? How much our government is capable of saving their livelihood? Needless to note that we have now a dwindling economy -- threatened by various export cuts, job losses, sluggish domestic markets, etc. Other deadly rings are being resonated by the returning workforces from abroad who did contribute to the lion's share of our revenue.

Broken heart, strangled but we should move on, take steps. Firstly, saving employments are important, making the economy moving on should be prioritized by the govt. Continued job losses in RMGs or other sectors will result in social and economic epidemics further soaring poverty and hunger. Secondly, diplomatic activism is essential to save the jobs of our migrant workers and for their safe return. Returnees should be rehabilitated with minimal businesses to earn their slices of bread. Thirdly, regularizing day-to-day economic activities as much as possible, to save the country from consumption shrunk and sustain the "demand and supply" chain, is a requisite.

Fourthly, channeling economic resources to downward people through economic policies and plans are vital.Fifthly, creating an investment-friendly atmosphere for foreign direct investment is a thirst-necessity as it is forecasted that investors may move on to us leaving China or others.

Sixthly, saving small and medium entrepreneurs of the country with incentives and other conveniences is required as the informal sectors of the country provide a high portion of employments. Seventhly, trying to reduce the technology-gap of the low skilled people with world standards, and transforming them into digitalization should be initiated in the long-run. Digitalization equips laborers to compete in the international labor-market and no matter what, without it, we will not be able to open up our prospects in the international arena.

Better still, ensuring the efficacy of public spending at all levels is the key to equality, equity, development, growth, sustainability, and prosperity. We have proved ourselves impotent to limit corruption at all levels of public spending so far, let alone eradicating such profanities. To prevent inequality, it is unexpected to have invisible by-passers stealing peoples' money, budgeted to bring equality, saving employments, livelihoods, and most importantly, to protect lots of lives and livelihoods.

The writer is a lecturer at the University of Barishal and a social researcher. Email: [email protected]

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