The other Pandemic | How COVID-19 has tipped millions over to the other side of poverty

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Many of us will have probably heard bits and pieces of this story, but it helps to put it all together in sequence. If Farid Uddin of Narayanganj’s Kashipara had even a slight idea of what the consequences would be, he would probably never have made a call to the national helpline 333.

On May 19, the 57-year-old made the call seeking government food assistance, after finding out about it via FM radio. However, the upazila administration found out that he was ‘owner of a four-storey building and a hosiery factory’, and therefore instructed him to give food aid to 100 people or face three months of prison. A number of news outlets – including at least one top-ranking daily (Prothom Alo, May 21) – reported this news quoting the Upazila Nirbahi Officer (UNO) that Farid had admitted that he was wrong in seeking help, because he was a wealthy man. Comments posted by people under that news article vilified Farid, with the majority sentiment being supportive of the UNO, with some saying that Farid should have been handed a bigger punishment.

What would transpire in the next few days was a complete flip of the script. While Farid arranged and distributed the 100 packs of food assistance in presence of the UNO, it was found that Farid was not the wealthy man he was earlier touted to be. The four-storey building he “owned” was actually a three-storied building with two tin-shed rooms on the roof, an inheritance he shared with six siblings. He did not own a hosiery factory but worked at two factories to make about Tk 10,000 a month as reported in The Daily Star on May 25, to support his family of four – his wife, a college-going daughter and a developmentally-challenged son.

Farid suffered a stroke a few months ago that damaged his vision and his memory, and the cost of his medication as well as his ailing son’s was an added burden. For the last few months, he did not get salaries properly as his employer was also struggling financially amid the pandemic’s economic fallout. In fear for his failing health and social humiliation in case he was jailed, Farid pawned his daughter’s jewelry (loaned money by using it as collateral) and borrowed from relatives a total of Tk 70,000 to pay his “fine” of 100 food packets three days later. News outlets also reported that he tried to take his own life in a fit of hopeless despair. The silver lining to this, if it can be called that, is that Farid was returned most of the money (although the conditions of that are somewhat dubious, let us not digress) and an investigation committee has been formed by the district administration to find out why he was treated unfairly.

Let us take a step back from Farid’s story (because we will come back to it) and look at some big picture numbers. In January, nonprofit research organization South Asian Network for Economic Modeling (SANEM) released findings of a study that estimated around 42 percent of the country’s population being below the poverty line in November and December 2020. It collected the data in a countrywide survey of 5,577 households that had been earlier surveyed in 2018 – when the poverty rate in the same households was 21.6 percent. More recently, in April, a joint study by BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) and Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) in urban and rural slums said the pandemic has created 2.45 crore “new poor” in the country as of March 2021. What is more significant is that a considerable number of these people had fallen into poverty when the pandemic struck, and could not get out of it. In April 2020, a month after the pandemic hit the country, some 3.7 crore people (or 22 percent of the country’s population) had joined the “new poor” club. A year later, that number stood at 2.45 crore, meaning that two out of three persons who fell into the crisis at the onset of the pandemic have not been able to get out of it in a year.

Now, these are the condensed final findings of two complex studies that factored in a number of parameters, and without going into the technicalities, we can trust these to be fairly accurate because they were carried out by reputed organizations and highly qualified experts. But big numbers are often hard to comprehend, unless put in context. The number of COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh (as of May 27) was just shy of eight lakhs, with around 12,500 deaths. Which means for every recorded case of the virus, over 30 fell into poverty and could not find their way back up.
It may be safe to say that the pandemic has affected every economy in the world, and for a burgeoning economy that is just rising above the LDC (least-developed country) status to move towards a middle-income one, these fallback numbers are not entirely shocking. However, there are areas of concern. Take for example the readymade garment (RMG) sector. According to a study by economic think-tank Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD) and BRAC university project Mapped in Bangladesh, some 3.57 lakh jobs in the RMG sector were lost in 2020 due to the pandemic, as export orders dwindled, shutting down at least 232 factories altogether. Despite the sector getting a stimulus package of Tk 8,000 crore, a vast majority of factories did not follow layoff rules, with only 3.6 percent complied with severance compensation principles, according to CPD.

Other sectors like informal work, restaurants and retail businesses also suffered major losses during the pandemic, and loss of jobs and livelihood affected all but a small, privileged portion of the population. While the government responded rather promptly to the situation and initiated a number of channels to reach help to the vulnerable, news reports throughout the year found faults in their implementation – from public representatives resorting to corruption to systemic flaws like erroneous lists.
Now, with all the information we have, let us go back to Farid Uddin.

Before the pandemic, Farid was probably doing okay. At least he did not have to pay rent, and a steady monthly earning of Tk 10,000 would have sufficed his needs. In a way, Farid could have been an ideal case study for the development success of Bangladesh over the last decade and a half – where the people could make their ends meet and live with dignity if they worked hard, even if they had obstacles on the way, like a special-needs son. But through the traumatizing experience he had to go through, he also became an example of how the pandemic has affected a massive number of people in the country: pushed into uncertainty and into an unknown territory of being unable to even seek help, because of how society has labeled them as financially stable. The initial reaction on the news article condemning his distress call shows that the line is still blurry on who is in need today, and who is not. And that blurred line may be the biggest unaddressed impact that the pandemic has had over Bangladesh, if not the globe.

Having said that, it would be unfair to not address the heartening instances of human compassion that have been on display since the pandemic began. From path-breaking and large-impact volunteering groups like Bidyanondo that reached tens of thousands of people to entirely personal initiatives that benefitted a handful of neighbours, the show of support for people in need has been a highlight of the pandemic. Especially in urban areas, where the pandemic’s economic fallout was much stronger than in rural areas, there were initiatives of all kinds to help people in need. For all the misinformation that social media was used to spread during the pandemic, there was also a considerable volume of rallying to help those in dire straits. In the early days of the pandemic, cars being driven slowly in the dead of the night, stopping at an intersection where people of all ages waited for alms, and handing out bags each containing rice, potatoes, lentils, salt and oil being handed over by the driver to the needy was a common sight. The Bangladeshi version of soup kitchens opened up where hundreds ate every day, and people put up phone numbers where one can anonymously call and groceries would be left at their doorsteps as covertly as they had asked for it.

With the budget for the next fiscal coming up, economists and research groups have made a number of suggestions to the government to address the new poor, and the government also definitely has its own plans. With a second wave of COVID-19 still strong in the country and a rather shaky vaccination campaign, it remains to be seen what policymakers, businesses and the people can do to overcome the fallouts, so that Farid Uddins can get back on their feet once again.

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