Bangladesh saw the highest deaths from coronavirus in a single day on Friday as 15 more people died from the virus infection, taking the death toll in the country to 75. Besides, 266 people tested positive for coronavirus during the period, taking the number of such cases in the country to 1838.
Health Minister Zahid Maleque came up with the disclosure joining the daily health bulletin of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR).
As the country's economy has come to a standstill due to the ongoing public holiday aimed at curbing the spread of coronavirus, experts have urged the government to look both at saving lives and livelihoods as millions of people have lost their jobs.
Economists fear the shutdown will have an adverse impact on the livelihoods of millions of vulnerable people and those engaged in informal sector, putting a severe strain on the economy.
The low-income people, especially day-labourers, rickshaw-pullers, transport workers, hawkers, staff of restaurants and shops, construction workers, have already been hit hard.
Experts have urged the government to provide cash incentive to the poor and properly distribute relief and utilise the incentive packages to overcome the possible economic impact on the country due to coronavirus outbreak.
According to the Labour Force Survey 2017, around 60.8 million people were in various jobs or engaged in economic activities. Employment in the informal sector accounts for 85.1 percent of the employed population.
Talking to our sister newsagency UNB, former caretaker government finance adviser Dr AB Mirza Azizul Islam said the government must ensure first that everyone has food.
"Saving lives is the most important issue. We must prevent deaths caused by hunger. Medical treatment has to be ensured for all," the noted economist added.
Dr Azizul Islam said the government has to ensure that relief materials reach the people in need. "Assistance to poor people has to be increased. We've noticed from media reports that relief materials were stockpiled in warehouses illegally even in this situation. Proper distribution is important and strong monitoring is needed," he said.
Islam suggested carrying out more coronavirus tests, Dr Azizul Islam added.
Prof Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), underscored the need for an emergency and recovery plan for the economy.
"Food and health issues should be prioritised. Then, plan to revive the economy has to be taken. Investment in health sector should be increased," he said.
He welcomed the stimulus packages.
"The central bank must monitor strictly so that no-one can take advantage of the situation. Good governance is important to tackle non-performing loans," the economist added.
He urged the government to allocate a monthly cash handout of Tk8,000 for each household of 75.7 million marginalised people.
"Both the economy and growth will reduce in the future due to COVID-19 outbreak. So, workers and entrepreneurs have to be put in motion to tackle the problem," he said.
Of the people employed in formal and informal sectors, he said 14 million get monthly salaries while over 10 million are day-labourers.
Besides, he added, 27 million people are self-employed like hawkers, street vendors, and small businessmen.
"An overwhelming majority of the country's 37 million labour forces - self-employed and day labourers - have become temporarily jobless," he said.
He said nearly 10 million day-labourers have lost their jobs while the vast majority of 27 million people in the informal sector have become temporarily unemployed and they are gradually losing their purchasing capacity.
Talking to UNB, Dr MA Razzaque, research director at Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI), said farmers are unable to sell their products due to supply chain disruption and urged the government to ensure smooth supply of the agriculture products to market.
He said immediate focus should be on human lives and livelihoods.
"Under the current circumstances, the government should provide cash incentive to vulnerable people. Saving lives should be the main objective in the existing situation," he said.
The economist said health service must be ensured for all. Doctors, nurses and other health workers should be protected and protective gears should be provided to hospitals.
"Around 85-90 percent of the total employees are in informal sector. Overall, 50 million people are at risk now. Cash incentives should be given to them," Razzaque said.
Trouble in two fronts
Bangladeshi officials have imposed a lockdown in a southeastern district where more than a million Rohingya refugees live in cramped camps, in a move to contain the coronavirus pandemic, as the nation recorded its highest daily spike in confirmed cases.
Bangladeshi authorities meanwhile on Thursday confirmed 112 new cases of the pneumonia-like disease and one death from it. That took the national tally to 330 cases and 21 deaths since the first case was detected in the country of 165 million people early last month.
"For the public interest, Cox's Bazar has been declared on lockdown," Md. Kamal Hossain, the district's deputy commissioner, announced on his Facebook page, referring to the district that borders Myanmar's Rakhine state, home of the stateless Rohingya.
He said his office had decided to also seal off the refugee camps in Ukhia and Teknaf sub-districts a day after authorities announced the lockdown, which restricts movements.
"No one, other than the designated persons, will be allowed to enter or come out of the 34 camps," Hossain told BenarNews, an RFA-affiliated online news service. "We have taken this decision to stop the spread of coronavirus infections at the camps."
Authorities made the move a day after officials sealed off the industrial city of Narayanganj and more than 50 neighborhoods in nearby Dhaka, the capital, to contain the pandemic.
About 740,000 Rohingya from Rakhine state fled their homes, beginning in August 2017, after Myanmar's military launched a brutal offensive in response to deadly attacks by a rebel group on government security posts. The Rohingya who crossed the border into Bangladesh joined hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya at camps in Cox's Bazar who had previously fled Myanmar.
"We have been trying to make the Rohingya understand that the coronavirus is fatal," Dil Mohammad, a Rohingya leader living at the no-man's land in Konarpara along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, told BenarNews.
"This can cause death. So, let us stay at home."
Md. Iqbal Hossain, an additional superintendent of police in Cox's Bazar district, said they police had established more checkpoints after the lockdown.
"We have intensified patrols and vigils around the camp, so that no Rohingya can get out of the camps or no foreigner or aid workers can enter without permission," he said.
"We have reports that a section of the Rohingya refugees, especially those who live closer to the border, maintain back and forth clandestine movement between the camps and Myanmar," Hossain told BenarNews. "They can bring in infection, too."
He said about 1.2 million Rohingya were housed in makeshift homes in Ukhia and Teknaf refugee camps.
As of Thursday, only one coronavirus infection had been detected in Cox's Bazar, Kamal Hossain, the deputy commissioner, told BenarNews, without elaborating.
"The Rohingya people live in close contact [among each other]. They are very vulnerable to coronavirus infections. They can easily get contracted with the virus if any of the aid workers serving the camps carried the virus. So lockdown is the best solution," he said. "We want to keep them safe."
Hossain did not reveal the duration of the lockdown, but said anyone caught violating the order would be prosecuted.
Mohammad Shamsu Douza, an additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told BenarNews on Thursday that health authorities had placed 42 Rohingya refugees under quarantine, but 12 of them had been cleared after showing no symptoms within the observation period.
Rights groups had earlier expressed concern about the possible outbreak of COVID-19 in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
In an April 6 statement, Amnesty International warned that the overcrowded camps were "being left behind in the humanitarian response" to the pandemic, which could have "devastating consequences" for the Rohingya refugees, whose extended families jam into tarpaulin shelters with mud floors.
"Basic, accurate information about the illness and measures to prevent its spread is failing to reach many people in the camps," Amnesty said, underscoring poor access to information since Dhaka authorities restricted access to telecommunications in the camps in September last year.
Local reports said limited mobile internet access had elevated the sense of panic among the refugees, allowing rumors to flourish.
Saikat Biswas, spokesman for the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, which coordinates the humanitarian agencies serving Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar, said that only emergency activities, including deliveries of food, water and medical services, were allowed as a result of the lockdown.
"Only the foreigners involved in the emergency services are allowed to go inside the camp," he told BenarNews. "The number of both local and foreign workers, serving the U.N. and other agencies, for entry into the camp has been reduced."
As some wealthier Western nations begin easing coronavirus restrictions, many developing countries, particularly in the Middle East and Africa, want to do it too, but they cannot afford the luxury of any missteps.
They lack the key tools - a sturdy economy, well-equipped hospitals and large-scale testing - that are needed for finding their way out of the pandemic.
Even a spirited public debate about an exit strategy, common now in Europe, seems unthinkable in countries battered by conflict, corruption or poverty.
Consider Lebanon, a tiny country teetering on the abyss of bankruptcy with a fragile health system and a restless population. A monthlong lockdown has thrown tens of thousands more people into poverty, putting pressure on the government to loosen restrictions. But medical resources are limited, prompting doctors to advocate for continuing them, even at the risk of a social explosion.
It's the same in many developing countries: Easing lockdowns could increase infections and quickly overwhelm hospitals with limited beds and breathing machines. Keeping restrictions in place risks social upheaval and more economic losses.
At the same time, inadequate testing and a lack of transparency could lead to misguided decisions, said Rabah Arezki, chief economist for the Middle East and North Africa at the World Bank and a senior fellow at the Middle East Initiative.
"I worry that a disorderly release of the lockdown would be doing more harm than good in the context that we are navigating without statistics and relevant data," he said.
Even wealthy nations have little room to maneuver.
Germany, Europe's largest economy, announced a slight easing of restrictions, including reopening most shops next week. But Chancellor Angela Merkel cautioned that restarting the economy too quickly could rapidly overwhelm its comparatively robust health care system.
Western nations also face a severe economic downturn, but the impact is softened by massive government rescue programs for businesses and struggling families, including $2.2 trillion in the United States. EU countries have agreed on a $550 billion package and are working on tax breaks and other measures to cushion the impact.
The global community is offering help to poorer nations. The International Monetary Fund said it's prepared to commit its $1 trillion in lending capacity to needy nations. The world's richest countries agreed to temporarily freeze poor nations' debt obligations, mainly in Africa.
Pakistan's prime minister has gone further, appealing to richer countries and international financial institutions to write off the debts of poorer countries. In a sign of growing desperation, a stampede this month at a food distribution center in Punjab province killed one man and injured dozens.
In Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country where one in three people lives in poverty, the government has opted for a partial lockdown that includes a nighttime curfew, fearing a full closure would devastate a fragile economy.
Lebanon has been hesitant to apply for IMF assistance mainly due to reservations by the powerful Hezbollah group that it would come with conditions and encourage political interference.
Even before the pandemic, Lebanon was one of the world's most indebted countries and struggled to come up with a reform plan that would unlock billions in international aid.
In early March, the government defaulted on its sovereign debt. The currency has lost up to 60% of its value, inflation has soared, and banks have imposed capital controls on cash withdrawals and transfers, putting more strain on hospitals struggling to pay workers.
Firas Abiad, director of the Rafik Hariri University Hospital in Beirut, said the financial crisis also disrupted the import of medical supplies, leading to shortages of urgently needed protective equipment.
Lebanon must expand testing, including in rural areas and refugee camps, and trace patients before restrictions can be eased, Abiad said.
In Yemen, Libya and Syria, where years of conflict have led to humanitarian disasters, there is fear that the scope of the outbreak is unknown due to a lack of testing, supplies and trained professionals.
In Africa, the virus has been confirmed in 52 of 54 countries, and lockdowns appear to be choking the continent's already vulnerable food supply.
South Africa, with the continent's most cases, has been able to slow the pace of infections with a strict lockdown that will last at least through April. But Africa's most industrialized economy was already in recession before the virus, and Finance Minister Tito Mboweni said restrictions must remain until the country can be sure to minimize the loss of life.
In Lebanon, there's no reliable social safety net. It announced plans to give about $120 per needed family three weeks ago, but even that tiny aid has yet to materialize. Meanwhile, prices have more than doubled and its currency hit its highest pound-to-dollar exchange rate ever this week.
Lebanon was among the first countries in the Middle East to close schools in February, followed by restaurants, and a total lockdown on March 16. Those measures are in place until at least April 26.
The IMF projected this week that Lebanon's economy will shrink by 12% in 2020 - the biggest contraction in the region.
There is concern that anti-corruption protests that began in October might re-ignite with more ferocity as conditions worsen. Small demonstrations already have broken out despite the lockdown. Last month, a Beirut taxi driver set his car ablaze after being fined for violating restrictions. In early April, a Syrian refugee died after setting himself on fire to protest his conditions.
Legislator Assem Araji, who heads parliament's health committee, urged patience, saying a continued lockdown "is better than an uncontrolled spread of the disease" in a country of 5 million that also hosts about 1 million Syrian refugees.
But Hassan Sharif, a 42-year-old minibus driver from the eastern city of Baalbek, said he lost his income and can barely feed his two children.
"We have reached a level of total despair and will return to the street (to protest), because dying of corona is easier than dying of hunger," he said.
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