According to a World Food Programme projection, up to 265 million people in low and middle income countries will face acute food insecurity by the end of 2020 as a result of the economic impacts of Covid-19, unless immediate action is taken. These figures, in fact, are nearly double compared to the numbers in 2019. Without much doubt, we may assume that many of them will also be in Bangladesh. We may also presume that the people in the north of the country are the most vulnerable to this scenario, as they are already the victims of multiple hazards, such as climate change and structural deprivation, from before.
On March 26, 2020, the government imposed the countrywide lockdown to reduce the spread of coronavirus infection. This has had an unprecedentedly huge impact on the lives of the poor and extreme poor. Both the rural agricultural workers and the urban informal sector labourers have experienced a similar loss of income in their respective employment fields during the pandemic. Information from the grassroots reveals that many families in the north and northwest of Bangladesh are already struggling, and the days ahead are only likely to be worse.
As the spread of coronavirus continues, many economic activities have slowed down or are even at a standstill, and the low-income earners of Bangladesh have faced the most severe consequences as a result. Particularly because of travel restrictions, the mobile agricultural labour force lost their chance to work in other districts during the important paddy harvesting season. As we know, many of the agricultural daily wage labourers from the north and northwest of Bangladesh temporarily migrate to the other parts of the country for work. Before the pandemic, they could work and save up enough for the coming two to three months, until the next crop season. Similarly, the urban poor also lost their employment opportunities in the informal sector, such as construction work, rickshaw pulling, work with hotels and restaurants, work in brickfields and so on.
A quick survey conducted in Rajshahi and Rangpur divisions by a development organisation supporting extreme poverty reduction projects came up with the findings that 73 percent of the extreme poor and poor families in the northwest of Bangladesh are facing severe food-related distress as a result of inadequate income during the coronavirus pandemic. The perspective survey conducted over phone at the end of June 2020 shows that 53 percent of the families are maintaining their living standards by borrowing money from multiple sources such as relatives, neighbours and microfinance agencies. Some of them are also taking money as advance wages from potential future employers, which in turn will cause them to lose income during the peak employment time. Some 37 percent of the families interviewed were forced to sell whatever small assets they had left in the family in order to buy food.
In different parts of the country, the time for harvesting the Boro paddy is spread over three months starting from April each year, while in the northwest region, it is done from mid-May until the first week of June. According to Mozibur Rahman, a field-based development worker engaged in livelihood projects for the extreme poor in Kurigram, one agricultural daily wage labourer usually earns around Tk 10,000 during this period by working in different parts of the country. However, he said that this year, "this same day labourer could not earn more than Tk 2,000 to Tk 3,000 due to movement restrictions." If they were able to work in full swing, they could bear the costs of at least three months of food for their families from their savings.
In the above mentioned assessment, it was observed that 63 percent of the agricultural workers had less than 30 days of work during Boro harvesting time this year. One such member of an extreme poor household, Maleka Begum (not her real name) of Shahagola union of Atrai in Naogaon district, said that her husband used to work at least 90 days during the Boro harvesting period in other years, but this year he could manage to work for 22 days only.
The situation of indigenous people in the northwest is even worse, as they are averse to migrating to faraway places for work. This particular situation has been an add-on to the sufferings that they already face due to lack of empowerment and multiple structural deprivations.
The story of urban and semi-urban informal sector workers is not very different than that of the agricultural labourers. From interactions with families in the northern districts, it can be assumed that about 60 percent of such workers have lost their jobs and opted to go back home. These groups of people invariably belong to extreme poor families. It was witnessed that some of them were engaged in selling groceries as village hawkers and others were competing for the agricultural work available in their respective villages. These families, which tend to have one main wage earner, are also facing severe food insecurities.
If the Covid-19 situation lasts much longer, a large number of low-income people living above the poverty line will fall below it, and many moderate poor households will drop lower down the poverty line. The overarching successes of Bangladesh in relation to poverty reduction will disappear as a result of this stagnancy in economic activities. The government has taken different initiatives to support the vulnerable people, such as food support, open market sale of rice at a lower price, and cash support for the extreme poor.
However, compared to the needs of the vast numbers of vulnerable people, the support received is far from adequate. A clear focus on vulnerable people and significant initiatives for bringing them back into economic activities can help reduce the adverse impacts of the pandemic on the poor. The north and the northwest, an area where most of the extreme poor of the country live, need significant and immediate attention in this regard. On top of that, there must be a substantial improvement in terms of governance, transparency and efficiency in the implementation of government initiatives. This situation also calls for international efforts to support countries with limited possibilities in tackling this huge crisis.
Habibur Rahman Chowdhury is leading an international development organisation in Bangladesh and writes on development issues.