Originally published in bigd.bracu.ac.bd on April 2020 

The COVID-19 pandemic began as a health crisis but has in time-triggered a grave and unfolding economic crisis with particular concerns for the poor and vulnerable. For effective policy response to the poverty consequences of the COVID-19 crisis, the importance of real-time evidence cannot be over-emphasized. Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and Brac Institute for Governance and Development (BIGD) teamed up to launch a rapid response telephonic survey
utilizing respondent telephone databases from earlier surveys on urban slums and rural poor.

From the outset, there was a realization that COVID-19 related restrictions on physical mobility and interaction would require an innovation in how the survey could be carried out. Team discussions settled on three essential pre-conditions for a successful survey:

  • Access to relatively recent telephone contact data-base of urban and rural poor
  • A sufficiently large contact database that, on a 50 percent response rate, would still yield a reasonably representative completed sample
  • An analytically strong but short survey instrument with no open-ended questions, implementable within a maximum time of twenty plus minutes

The survey questionnaire included four modules: i) mobility during the crisis, ii) impact of the crisis on their livelihoods, iii) coping mechanisms, and iv) needs and expectations on required support. While the instrument was wholly quantitative and close-ended, enumerators were advised to note any qualitative observations shared by the respondents in the course of the telephonic conversation.

The following conclusions were drawn from the research:

  • Deep and system-wide poverty impact: Urban and rural respondents suffered an income drop of 75% and 62% respectively. 71% percent of the urban respondents and 55% of rural respondents faced livelihood uncertainty. The income shock also led to a contraction in consumption—food expenditure was reduced by 28% by urban respondents and 22% by rural respondents
  • Initial poverty impact of Covid-19 crisis has been more severe for the urban poor: All indicators of vulnerability as noted above indicate that the urban poor has been more severely impacted by the Covid-19 crisis. This is particularly an area of concern because social protection programs in Bangladesh has mainly focused on the rural poor.
  • Emergence of a “new poor” class necessitates a rethinking of approaches to poverty: A crucial finding of the survey is the rapid emergence of a class of ‘new poor’ – informal sector occupations with income above the poverty line but within a band of vulnerability that saw 77% of this vulnerable non-poor group falling below the poverty line income due to the impact of the Covid-19 crisis.
  • Notwithstanding the prioritisation of livelihood concerns, both rural and urban respondents have also prioritised the risk of COVID-19 infection: 60% of rural respondents and 50% of urban respondents cited the infection risk as a priority concern. Poverty-impacted urban and rural households emphasize the need for both food and cash support in nearly equal measure.
  • Large-scale social protection support has become critical to avert widespread food insecurity: We have calculated a realistic fiscal package of BDT 4746.22 crores for a month’s support to 33 million poor and an additional package of BDT 5338.72 crores for a month’s support to 36.9 million of ‘new poor’.
  • Last mile delivery challenges: This will be a critical issue for scaled-up social protection measures to mitigate the poverty impact of Covid-19 crisis. For example, how to provide assistance to such a large number of people within a short time efficiently and effectively will be a critical question.
  • Real-time tracking of the health and livelihood impact of Covid-19 and how well personal and external support are mitigating such impact is crucial for more effective policy response to the COVID-19 crisis: PPRC and BIGD have resolved to undertake a follow-up survey in June 2020 to generate further real-time evidence on the impact process and support dynamics.