Bottlenecks in making Bangladesh work again


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Bottlenecks in making Bangladesh work again


The Great Lockdown will now be with us for at least another two weeks. But when lockdown finally does lift, how do you think people will change their behaviour?  Obviously in quite different ways, depending upon, their financial wherewithal.

The affluent will probably choose not to leave the security of their homes. If work from home (WFH) is not possible continuing, they might volunteer to go to their workplaces only if enough social-distancing is guaranteed. The poor, on the other hand, having suffered serious economic deprivations during the month of the lockdown, will be desperate rejoining the workforce under any terms.

In essence, with respect to workforce supply, the industrialists will want to protect their lives, while the poor people will make every effort to renew their livelihoods.

But the story does not finish there. The ongoing pandemic will also impact people’s need for goods and services. Everyone will require health goods to fight the virus — from face-masks and test-kits to hospital beds and ventilators. At the same time, many will suspend buying all kinds of inessential durable goods — from small  items like clothes, shoes and beauty products, to big items like white goods, cars and apartments.

And then there will be necessities — food, hygiene products, medicines, cell-phone talk-times — whose demands will not change much.

It is important to recognise these demand changes because whether a poor person can, indeed, renew her livelihood once the nationwide lockdown concludes depends crucially upon these changes, and upon the degree of lockdown relaxation.

While policymakers have recognised that Covid-19 will cause a general demand reduction in the country, the change in demand composition has not been adequately emphasised. Once we recognise this change, as also the partial relaxation of the lockdown from May 5 in ‘green’ and ‘orange’ zonal districts rather than its complete withdrawal, the following issues come to the fore.

Food and Work

*The problem of vanishing demand: There are 80 million informal sector workers in Bangladesh, with more than 50 million workers in the garments industry, 10 million street vendors, 5 million rickshaw/van pullers 5 million construction workers, 3 million artisans and 3 million domestic workers.

It may be safe to say that due to Covid-19, at least 40 million informal workers will confront vanishing demand. The act of ‘un-lockdowning’ the nation by itself will not make much economic difference to these people. To help them — and other unskilled labourers — survive the pandemic, we will need to give them direct transfers in cash or kind, and/or include them in food-for-work programmes.

Regarding the latter, we will be smart to leverage the fact that the pandemic is generating new demands for health goods — personal protective equipment (PPE) and face-masks — and for new public works programmes, such as expansion of quarantine and treatment centres. The government must look to recruit unemployed labourers — especially garment and construction workers — for these jobs.

*The need for accessing demand and supply:

Then there will be producers whose outputs will enjoy sustained demand during the pandemic. But they will still need to access stable input supply chains and marketing channels to rejuvenate their economic lives after lockdown relaxation. While inter-state movement of (essential) goods and services is permitted under the lockdown, its volume has fallen drastically over the last month.

Daily truck movements have reportedly gone down by 90%, while 500 freight trains have been stuck holding in essential goods loaded on to them before March 25.

Such transportation bottlenecks will limit economic recovery under any lockdown relaxation that continues to restrict — as it should, given increasing disease-spread in many hotspots — unfettered movement of people and freight across district and state-lines.

The agricultural sector will suffer greatly if farmers, having harvested their rabi crops, find it hard to market them. The obverse problem will befall many manufacturers who have willing buyers — like producers of Covid-19 test-kits — but are unable to maintain input supply chains needed to expand production.

Simply permitting inter-state freight movement is not enough. Bangladesh must do more. It must recognise that in this pandemic, where mass movement of people is likely to aggravate disease-spread, a dedicated cadre of ‘transport workers’ — who will transport raw materials and finished products (and people if necessary) across districts and states — is as essential as health workers.

Such a cadre can be created from the nation’s existing informal transport workers as well as from its security forces, and these people must be given adequate protective gear

Get Things Going

Bangladesh  role in nurturing a resilient ‘cross-country public transportation network’ is vital for preserving life — by ensuring production and distribution of medical equipment and necessities, as well as for renewing livelihoods — by enabling more people to start earning again.

In the ‘life vs livelihood trade-off’ in Bangladesh, judicious relaxation of the lockdown will be a proactive step towards renewing the livelihoods of many. But to realise its gains ‘wholly or in full measure’, certain concomitant steps — devising ways to support workers whose earning capacities have been destroyed by Covid-19, and ensuring a robust nationwide public transportation network — need to be taken.

The writer is the Editor of Ananda Bazar, Bangladesh



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