COVID-19 and Bangladesh Analysis of the Situs of Country’s Mainstream Policy Concerns -Abdullah Al Mahmud

Cover Story

Bangladesh has been failed to mitigate the outburst of COVID-19 pandemic because of its proper policy inexistence, fragile health system and mass ignorance. The future outlook of the country’s economy is now the talk of the policymakers and mainstream economists. But as we always maunder, “Speaking is not enough, speaking something important is demanded” in this pandemic situation. In reality, only some ‘popular’ economic and political discourses have been stuck in the policy debate for a long time, disregarding the deep utile root-structural discourses. ‘Growth centric’ mysticism confines, either intentionally or not, the policy makers to an economic bubble. The economic bubble is no less dangerous than the political bubbles. Henceforth, orthodox Bangladeshi economists and policymakers are politically motivated, sometimes more than the politicians themselves. It is not quite difficult to catch up with these well-known, westerner’s self-driving economic mythology and their tattling in the policy-level discussion. It is pretty much simple if we just look at the focus-points they are bringing forth in policy recommendations and what they always endeavor to come up with.

Liberated from the tyranny of Pakistan, Bangladesh struggled with complicated troubles even in the ’80s. The troubles ranged from mass corruption to poverty and famine, from financial instability to violent terrorism. The government, however, had to manage macroeconomic variables, i.e., increasing economic growth and volume of the national revenue, reducing inflation rate, creating employment opportunities for people. Now, handling those options required the prescription of economists who might recommend policy-oriented solutions. Consequently, economists, clinging to conventional macroeconomic theories, hurriedly stepped into the state policy-making and consultation. This was how our mainstream economists grabbed a completely open floor in policy-level discussion and monopolized it for a long time.

These growth-centric economists relentlessly argue whether the economy will lead to a “V-Shape” or “U-Shape” economy in the post-pandemic business cycle and whether the country can ever reach to its 7 to 8+ growth rate in any time soon or it will be facing a less than 2 gross domestic products (GDP) growth for a bigger period of time. The debate on all these classical economic thoughts persists in a more narrowed trajectory of the discipline itself, from the ever early open market economy in Bangladesh. Of all those mainstream economists who are maundering around all these aforementioned dialects, no one ever asked why a country with a GDP per capita (nominal) of 2065 US dollars (World Bank, 2020) couldn’t manage to allocate sufficient foods for the poorest population of the country, not for even two weeks in this pandemic.

Food is not something luxurious we expect our government to ration us when our poor people are starving from hunger, otherwise what’s the point of the welfare of the state? Or what’s the point of development? Honorable prime minister gammoned in the parliament last year that the economy is now resilient with a gigantic surplus of food storage. 17 lac tons of rice was announced to be stored already (Ministry of Foods, 2019), then why this rice wasn’t distributed to the marginalized poor people who are starving from hunger in this zero-dollar-earning period? Why is an 8% GDP’s country now have over 7 crores bank accounts with an average of 625 Bangladeshi takas (less than 8 dollars) savings? (Dr. Maha Mirza, Prothom Alo, 15th June 2020).

In June 2020, finance minister AHM Mustafa Kamal proposed the budget for the FY2020-21. To cover up the costs and losses of this unprecedented global crisis- COVID 19- he announced a stimulus budget of 1 lac 4 thousand crores taka (Bangladeshi currency) for the economy to boost up again in its full regular sue In this stimulus fiscal program (Budget Speech, Page 5), the two most vulnerable sectors of the economy in this pandemic – health and agriculture- are fully neglected. The whole 4 hours-long budget speech of the finance minister toggled a 2 minutes Camino for the agriculture sector with no mentionable incentives for the poor farmers and the whole agricultural sector. No allowance has been included in this stimulus budget for the farmers who were terribly veined in this lockdown period due to the inexistence of the regular goods market. Our long-enduring agricultural sector that was recently hit by cyclone ‘Amphan’ is slacked in this budgetary discourse of the mainstream economists.

Looks like these mainstream economists think “Plants will always grow, no matter what happens to agriculture. From ‘Amphan’ cyclone to corona pandemic- nothing can stop our agriculture!” As if there is no syndicate in this sector that causes the crop prices to fall, as if there is no sudden price hiking for agricultural raw materials that makes farmers suffer, as if there is no riverside land erosion, as if there are no inseparable stories of the poor farmers’ suicide cases along with the heavy losses during the crop selling monsoon. On the other side, when health sector needs to be prioritized on top of everything now, only a percentage of 5-6 is put in for this sector’s instant betterment which to be financed for a two-month bonus and an unquoted compensation for the infected doctors and nurses only while the industrialists and garment owners got more than half (65%) of the stimulus budget (5,000 crores for the garment sector, 30,000 crores for the large industries, 20,000 for the CMSME and 5,000 crores for pre-shipment credit financing for the exporters) as directly noted in the budget’2020-21 speech of the finance minister (Page 5).

The same day the finance minister announced the FY20-21 budget, Chittagong city hospitals doctors used the same COVID-19 testing kit for two or more patients due to insufficient testing kits. From the very beginning of this pandemic, frontline fighters of this crisis, or doctors were forced to stay in hospitals without PPE, masks. No mainstream economists have yet questioned this negligence for the health sector and agriculture sector. Still, our mainstream economists do not bring forth this sector’s untold sad stories, unheard ballad, and operas into the policy level economic colloquy of Bangladesh.

Economists have been condemning the public citizens from ever early of this ‘pandemic vacation’ for their reckless response in dealing with it. Why public citizens are not careful enough, why they gather in public places indiscriminately, why they need to go outside, and so on. But they are not cautious of the reason that these reckless people have now no other choices without stepping outside and looking for temporary work. Seeing them stepping outside of the home, economists are pondering that this lockdown is nothing but a vacation, but they are frowning to discuss why they are outside now when they are meant to be inside of the house and have a proper meal.

The poverty rate has increased by almost 200% in this pandemic timeline, from 20.5% to a global think tank projected 40.9% (SANEM, 2020), meaning that once this pandemic is gone about half of the total population will now live below the poverty line in this country. This is exactly the same as it was in 2005 (WDI Indicators, 2005), indicating that all these 15 years’ repeated growth and development to tackle poverty have finally come to an end? The only reason why lockdowns haven’t been fruitful for the public is the lack of people’s economic insufficiency to maintain this months-long lazy home staying. Yet mainstream economists are not bothering our policy-makers to discuss the matters related to this I.e. basic income for the poorest population, affixing all hospital’s residence capacity and building new hospitals instead of building murals and statues, adapting the root level administration with technology and awareness aptitudes.

The list won’t end here. The digitalization of the education sector has been kept aside for a long time in our policy-oriented discourses. Public universities have long been speaking out for an expansionary package for their research institutions, residence capacity, and materializing the online platforms. Yet, our policy-makers didn’t heed their demands possibly because mainstream economists are not prioritizing this adaptation as much necessary to do. As the lights of normal education platforms in universities faded in this months-long lockdown, University Grant Commission (UGC) urged in a communique to commence online-based education activities in May 2020.

But 42 out of 45 public universities refused to start online education activities due to their lack of online materials, resources, and lack of students’ internet access-capacity (Dhaka Tribune, 5th June 2020). Our mainstream economists have never uttered any single denial to all these years’ contracting budget on the education sector, especially in tertiary research and online platform tools that emerged an unprecedented lesion during this pandemic period being unable to inuring online education platforms. They were so busy keeping the growth-centric bubble up- how the growth can further be achieved, desirable inflation and unemployment rate, how much reserve should the central bank store, and so on.

In this FY-2020-21 budget, the social safety net program has been newly idealized and implemented to protect the ultra-poor section of the population from the sudden unemployment and shrinking of income inequality due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The country’s mainstream economists are so excited about it that they forgot the political history of Bangladesh where political leaders and ruling party members engrossed in a huge sum of public relief, public cash allowance. Even right after when this social safety net program was launched in mid of April, cash of 2500 BDT cash allowance for 50 lac selected poor persons, but ruling party’s activists and leaders enlisted their names on that nationwide list and took the cash allowance (Dhaka Tribune, 10th July 2020). Apparently, it seems that the budget which was allocated for instantly reducing inequality between ultra-poor and rich will now increase inequality and corruption instead. Yet our mainstream economists are frowning this half hoax.

The informal sector is bigger than the formal one. 86% of the laboring people of this country work in this gigantic informal sector (Labor Force Survey, 2010). From street hawker to rickshaw puller, from a paid helping hand to unknown fisherman. Without any written contract, without any certainty, without any compensation assurance if injured or deceased- they work for the betterment of this economy. About half a million female helping hands are now working in the capital city Dhaka. More than one million rickshaw pullers serve the economy only in Dhaka- the city of Rickshaws (MR Karim, 2019). more than 5 lacs hawkers are currently living in the country (Bangladesh Hawkers Federation, 2014), more than 3 lacs fishermen and salt industry laborers are now working in Cox’s Bazar and Kuakata (MA Al Mamun, June 2014). All these people contribute to our economy and make our economy sustainable. Yet, there are no bona fides of our mainstream economists in discussing their payment rise, their medical assurances, and the cost of their valueless lives. It is probably a demeaning call for the renowned economists to talk about the street hawkers, rickshaw pullers, fishermen, paid helping hands, day-laborers, poor farmers.

Nobel laureate poet Rabindranath Tagore once wrote in one of his poems – Oykotaan (Synergy) – “Oh the self-exiled poet, let the utterance of the ‘surrounded but distant’ people reach to you. Nevertheless, all of your poetry goes in vain”. Mainstream economists are so deportee from the utterance of the root level economic discourses and from the touch of the real shapers of the economy that in discussing economic matters they embark their bubble surrounded by the graphs, curves and mathematical equations of the economic theories related to growth, inflation, unemployment, export-import, debt and they argue on all these ‘real’ development without even plumbing its root. The root lies in the outbursts of the poor farmers, in the lack of human capability of the rural population, in the inhumane struggles of an ever-deprived slum dweller for just a meal in Dhaka city, in the uncertain eyeing of a daily laborer, in the idle look of a fisherman into the horizon of the Bay of Bengal. Will our mainstream economists ever hark their stories? Will these sidelined people’s unsung struggles and unsaid prayers become policy any time soon if the mainstream economists and policy makers choose to remain silent? Silence is no longer an expostulation; silence is a denial and significantly a betrayal to intellectual aptitudes.

The author of this article is a regular contributor to government policies, economy and politics.