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Bangladesh’s COVID Lockdowns, Sans Govt Cash Aid, Are ‘Useless’

The Bangladesh govt is set to impose a ‘tighter’ lockdown 14 April onwards. But will it really help?

Published
Opinion
5 min read
Image of Bangladesh map used for representational purposes.
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Sohel Islam Rana, a shopkeeper at the Gazipur City Corporation, one of the most crowded cities in Bangladesh, used to make at least Bangladesh Taka (BT) 2000, that is approximately INR 1772, per day. But right after a week-long lockdown was imposed from Monday, 5 April, to curb the spread of COVID-19 in the country, his sales came down to BT 700.

But it’s not a big problem for Sohel; he’ll be able to carry on alright if the lockdown ends in seven days. But it’ll become a problem for him if the lockdown lasts for a longer period, as it was in 2020, when he needed to return to his native village in northern Bangladesh.

Most of Sohel’s customers work at the garment factories in Gazipur or Ashulia, which is another nearby township filled with garment factories. These customers live at least one to five kilometres away from their workstations.

In pre-COVID times, they would use the bus to travel to the factories, the bus ride being BT 10 to 20 for a roundtrip, but under COVID lockdown circumstances, they have been compelled to walk for kilometres to reach the factories or use autorickshaws, which charge them at least BT 40 to 60 for a roundtrip. As the expenses have increased, they have stopped visiting shops, including Sohel’s, which they would usually frequent over a cup of tea or snacks on their way home post-work.

Bangladesh Garment Factories Open Amid COVID

While announcing the seven-day lockdown last Saturday, Bangladesh’s State Minister for Public Administration, Farhad Hossain, told the media that the factories would remain operational during lockdown, and workers would attend to their duties in different shifts, while following strict health protocols.

The decision to keep the factories operational, with people working in shifts, comes as a surprise, because this is how most of the garment factories are said to function under normal circumstances in Bangladesh. A group joins the factories in the morning shift and return before the evening shift, and a third shift begins at night.

In more than 4000 garment factories, a total of more than four million people work, and this industry is the motor of Bangladesh’s economy. Due to the two-month lockdown in 2020, a total of 70,000 workers lost their jobs, the largest trade body for garment owners said in August 2020. And it resulted in a loss of more than USD 3 billion.

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Did Govt Help Those Who Lost Their Jobs Amid COVID

The Bangladesh authorities failed to aid the workers who lost their jobs last year. Keeping that in mind, the authorities decided to keep the garment factories operational this time around. But this is doing little to curb the transmission of the virus.

“We cannot call it a lockdown since the government has kept mills, factories and book fairs open,” Prof Muzaherul Huq, a former adviser to WHO, South-East Asia, told Bangladeshi news agency UNB. “This is not a scientific way to restrict public movement. A lockdown means everything will be closed except some emergency services, pharmacies and the market where people can buy everyday things from.”

After immense criticism in the first two days of this week-long lockdown, the government, in an abrupt move, decided to reopen public transport from Wednesday in the city corporation areas of the country. Obaidul Quader, the Minister of Road Transport and Bridges, told the media that the decision was made to reduce the suffering of the people who live in the city areas. He, however, didn’t say how this decision would help Bangladesh curb the spread of the virus.

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Why is a Book Fair Open During Raging COVID-19 Pandemic?

The Amar Ekushy book fair was originally scheduled to take place in February 2021. But due to the COVID-19 situation then, the authority, Bangla Academy, decided to start the book fair on 18 March, despite criticism from various quarters, including the authors.

Director-General of Bangla Academy, Habibullah Siraji, who himself is a poet, told the media that they opted to keep the book fair open as per the instructions of the government.

“The book fair will remain open from 12 PM to 5 PM during the lockdown. This decision has been made by the government, and we are just following it,” Habibullah told BBC Bangla on 4 April.

“It makes no sense to me. It’s ridiculous, it’s a terrifying move,” Lutfor Hasan, an author who has been drawing the attention of new generation readers for years, told this correspondent for The Quint. “I really don’t know why they kept the book fair open when public transport has been on hold. I have seen, over the years, that many senior citizens don’t want to miss even a day of the book fair. So they went to the book fair this year as well. But we all know that elderly people are more vulnerable to COVID-19. I don’t understand why they kept the book fair open.”

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How Will Daily Wage Earners Survive Pandemic Situation?

Sohel knows a few public transport workers who earn BT 300 to 500 a day, working as bus conductors. He said these people are now jobless, and it’s tough for them to look after their families without government help.

“I used to run a shop and earn money every day in normal times. I could deposit some money as well. So yes, I can still look after my family if my shop remains shut for a week. But these people are day-labourers. They are unable to buy food if don’t go to work for even one or two days. So, this lockdown doesn’t suit us in any way,” Sohel told this correspondent for The Quint.

He feels that if the government aids them with cash, so that they can survive for at least a week, they’ll all stay home, and the lockdown will be more effective.

‘An Unscientific, Unplanned and Half-Hearted Lockdown’

Prof Muzaherul believes this so-called ‘lockdown’ goes against the very definition of lockdown. He said: “It’s an unscientific, unplanned and half-hearted lockdown. It won’t help the country curb the transmission of COVID-19.”

Talking to the local media, Bangladesh’s noted virologist, Prof Nazrul Islam said that this lockdown would result in nothing but a waste of energy and money. He said: “The desired goal cannot be achieved through this.”

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A Tighter Lockdown From 14 April

Amid a worsening coronavirus situation, and with the ongoing lockdown proving to be ineffective, the authorities thought to impose a strict lockdown from 14 April for the next seven days, aiming to stop the transmission of the virus.

State Minister for Public Administration, Farhad Hossain said to the media that during this lockdown, except for some emergency services, all the government and private offices would remain shut. And this time around, the garment factories would also stay closed for seven days.

Be-Nazir Ahmed, former director (disease control) at the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), said to the local media, that the ongoing lockdown, from 5 April to 11 April, was unplanned.

“The ongoing restriction was unplanned and that's why the government had to backtrack on its decisions repeatedly. The restriction failed to contain the transmission as we are experiencing a surge in cases,” he told to the Daily Star.

A rigid lockdown means the people who earn little will suffer heavily as there is no announcement of aid from the government. With the month of Ramadan — when Muslims fast — already around the corner, and the biggest festival for Muslims — Eid al-Fitr — only a month away, the coming month looks very tough for daily wage earners in Bangladesh.

(The author Saif Hasnat is a Dhaka-based journalist. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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