Originally published in New Age on 25 June 2020

Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies at a virtual seminar on Wednesday estimated that about 1.64 crore people already became new poor in the country due the ongoing COVID-19 pendemic.

Due to the shutdown induced by COVID-19, the number of new poor increased by at least 9 percentage points to 29.4 per cent from 20 per cent, BIDS researcher Binayak Sen said in his paper on ‘Poverty in the Time of Corona: Short-term Effects and Policy Responses’.

Planning minister MA Mannan, planning division secretary Ashadul Islam, professor SR Osmani of Ulster Business School, University of Ulster, UK and IEDCR adviser Mohammad Mushtuq Husain took part in the discussion arranged by the state-run think-tank.

Three papers and a survey report were presented at the seminar by BIDS researchers Monzur Hossain, Kazi Iqbal and Binayak Sen done against the backdrop of the the current COVID-19 impacts and responses from the governments.

Commenting on the papers SR Osmani said the government was still giving priority to the GDP growth instead of saving livelihood.

Referring to the findings that emerged in Monzur Hossain’s presentation on small and medium enterprises, he said the amount of stimulus announced for the big industry is much higher than what the SMEs were promised.

Monzur Hossain pointed out that the SMEs contributed 25 per cent to the country’s GDP and accounted for 86 per cent of the industrial workforce, which incurred losses of Tk 92,000 crore in past quarter.

He said the SMEs would hardly be benefitted from Tk 20,000 crore the government announced to give them as loans as such loans could easily be turned into bad loans, thereby aggravating the problem in the banking sector.

As the chief guest at the discussion, MA Mannan criticised SR Osmani’s statement on poverty eradication but expressed worries over the findings presented by Binayak Sen.

He asked for more data on poverty since Binayak suggested that the present approach amid 30-40 per cent leakage in the safety net programme would prevent the country from achieving 2 per cent poverty in the light of the sustainable development goals by 2030.

Due to COVID-19-induced shutdown the number of new poor increased at least 9 percentage points, rising to 29.4 per cent from 20 per cent, according Binayak.

Mannan also appreciated his suggestion that the national identification on the basis of income and their needs should be updated so that those could be used to tackle the epidemic.

IEDCR adviser Mohammad Mushtuq Husain in his short but crucial speech echoed the sentiment of Sen that higher allocation to the healthcare budget was an imperative to improve the fragile healthcare system.

Otherwise, the universal health facility would remain elusive even in 2030, he said.

Mushtuq took issue with Sen’s claim that the number of COVID-19 infected would have not been less had the government made tests easier for the people as Tk 4,000 as testing fee was much higher as the amount was equivalent to half month’s salary of a readymade garment worker.

The BIDS survey conducted over 30,000 respondents electronically in May found that 58 per cent saw a reduction on their pre-COVID-19 income of Tk 15,000.

Of them, 23 per cent respondent said that there has been total loss of income.

The survey found that 25 per cent respondents admitted domestic conflict amid the COVID-19 crisis, 6 per cent of them complained about physical torture.

The speakers asked the government to set priorities, work towards improving emergency healthcare systems and stopping leakages in the safety net programme to strengthen the fight against COVID-19.

They also asked the government to streamline the healthcare facilities to give priority to the worst cases as many less vulnerable COVID-19 patients were occupying hospital beds because of their high social status.

Many seriously infected were dying after they being refused admission to hospitals, lamented Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies director general KAS Murshid in his concluding remark on the seminar on ‘In the Shadow of COVID: Coping, Adjustments, Responses.’