Originally Published in The Financial Express on Sunday 26 April 2020

Bangladesh to move beyond crisis, hopes Oxfam

– Dr Dipankar Datta

None of the Rohingyas living in Cox’s Bazar is infected with coronavirus although the standards for refugee camps are not designed to cope with the pandemic like Covid-19, the Country Director of Oxfam in Bangladesh has said.

The camps, Dr Dipankar Datta added, are still uninfected despite reports of a confirmed case in the local community in Cox’s Bazaar, the district that housed the world’s largest refugee camp with almost one million Rohingya people.

“Our frontline colleagues mobilised them and trained them on hygiene practices as soon as the pandemic hit Bangladesh. This has helped us to spread awareness message. The good news is: so far there has been no cases in the camp,” he told The Financial Express in an email interview on Sunday.

Braving risks, the Oxfam local chief pointed out, their volunteers carried out campaign, including essential WASH work to continue maintaining contact with the Rohingya people incorporating leaders called Majhis and provide avenues for them to stay safe. “In Bangladesh, we were fast in stepping up to the challenge in Cox’s Bazar, extending the ongoing WASH work with Covid-19 prevention messaging and infrastructure.”

Having experience of working in a number of countries, Dipankar Datta strongly feels that countries like Bangladesh deserve international supports in addressing the current crisis. “Overcoming this crisis and the funding that is required should first and foremost come from multilateral and bilateral relations with no strings attached but with a view to allowing Bangladesh to move beyond the crisis,” he insisted.

In view of the fallouts of the Covid-19 on various sectors, the Oxfam official expressed his views that specifically, vulnerable groups and businesses require assistance not only to survive but to reconstruct their resources and create a future.

“While wealthy nations can and have put together at times trillion-dollar economic stimulus packages – the US and Japan do – to support businesses and workers, most developing nations, however, can’t meet the needs of their people without significant assistance,” he noted.

Oxfam, a confederation of 19 independent charitable organisations, has called for a package of nearly $160 billion in immediate debt cancellation and aid to fund a ‘Global Public Health Plan and Emergency Response’, to help prevent millions of deaths as a result of the coronavirus outbreak, he mentioned, emphasising generous role of donor agencies and multi-billionaires around the globe during the current crisis.

“We call upon the international community to act now urgently and fully fund the UN’s humanitarian appeal to enable the delivery of life-saving humanitarian assistance and provide an additional $160 billion through aid and immediate debt cancellation to help poor countries double their spending on public health.”

In Bangladesh context, he said, apart from refugees and displaced population, self-employed, garment workers, migrant workers, farmers and fisherfolks, and many other poor and vulnerable groups are badly hit by the desperate measures taken to prevent the virus.

“We see consistently that Covid-19 exacerbates existing social and economic vulnerabilities,” he observed expressing apprehensions that the pandemic might force many households to adopt negative coping mechanisms such as distress sells of assets and advance labour, taking exploitative loans, early marriage of the girls, and stopping sending children to school.

Referring to Bangladesh’s major development gains in the past 50 years like tripling food production, the Oxfam Country Director insisted that this gain needs to be protected by ensuring that farmers produce right kind of food and people can buy food. He underlined the importance of taking up clear communications strategies to reach out to farmers with guidance about type of food they would produce in the post-Covid context.

“If farmers continue focusing on producing cash crops, there may not be adequate buyers leading to the collapse of price in the market. As the cash crop is perishable good, farmers would not also be able to store it and would face heavy loss,” he added.

Dr Dipankar Datta recommended providing cash to stimulate demand, while fighting inflation, to protect the country’s gains of economic development.

Asked about utilisation of taxpayers’ money in stimulus package, he gave his opinion that if not well monitored or in absence of clear policy framework, the stimulus package in any country may not bring any benefit for the people who would rely heavily on social assistance schemes, marginal farmers and fisherfolk, people employed in Small and Micro Enterprises (SME), etc. “Thus, a conscious effort is required to bring the benefit of stimulus packages not only to established industries but also to the other sectors who may have less negotiation skills or limited access to authorities,” he said.