As reported by a leading English newspaper of Bangladesh, the Daily Star, the situation in poor neighbourhoods is becoming desperate due to food shortages, sanitation problems and a dense population. The story of a destitute woman Kanchan, living in a slum in Bhadra locality of Rajshahi district reflects the grim situation. Kanchan says that she is using leftover rice and crumbs from the previous two nights to eat breakfast, and did not eat a single morsel in the past two days. She is rationing meals for the next day, calculating and measuring so she has enough food for the days to come. Kanchan can hardly recall her age, she used to manage three meals on a regular day by selling scraps she picked up around the city roads. But due to the shutdown, she cannot go out into the streets and so, must skip meals.

Kanchan, her neighbours, and those living in other slums had not received any government food support till April 7, six days since the local administration began distributing daily essentials among those who are outside government safety-net programmes. The United Nations’ recently warned that up to two million people could die of coronavirus in Bangladesh if no steps were being taken to contain the spread. Although the Awami League government has taken some drastic steps to stem the tide, challenges in Bangladesh make it vulnerable to COVID-19 in a very different way.

Bangladesh’s vulnerability to COVID-19 stems from six major factors. One; rampant poverty and an increasing class gap between haves and have-nots. Two; too much dependence on one type of export and narrow agriculture base to feed 160 million people. Three; an inadequate and poorly staffed health system. Four; a meagre package from the Awami League government for the poor and shifting funds to the rich to save the garments sector. Five: an influx of expatriates from the Gulf and the West, as migrant workers are laid off from jobs and return to help their families. Six; very limited testing of coronavirus cases.

Al Jazeera TV reported that Bangladesh hospitals are forced to turn away patients as doctors and other healthcare workers say they do not have adequate personal protective equipment – and the health system cannot cope with the outbreak. Bangladesh exports are largely tilted towards the garments sector. Garment exports accounted for $34.12 billion, or 84% of the country’s overall exports of $40.53 billion, in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2019. Business Standard has highlighted that Bangladesh, the second-largest apparel producer after China, is set to lose roughly $6 billion in export revenue this financial year amid cancellations from some of the world’s largest brands and retailers, two major industry bodies said last week.

“We’ve lost more than $3 billion due to the crisis. All our orders until July have been cancelled or suspended,” Mohammad Hatem, vice president of Bangladesh Knitwear Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BKMEA), said.

According to World Bank data, only 15% of Bangladesh’s population makes more than 500 taka ($5.90) a day. They can meet their daily expenses, send their children to school, and hope that they reserve enough for an emergency health crisis. Most villagers depend on remittances from the cities or abroad. But because this is a global crisis, people everywhere are out of work. Income has stopped.

If coronavirus spreads in Bangladesh, it could create a gigantic humanitarian crisis. There has to be a balancing between large-scale physical distancing and need for maintaining basic food supply. Like India, the urban poor of Bangladesh, who live off their daily wages, are resorting to skipping their meals.

According to World Bank data, Bangladesh has 8 hospital beds for every 10,000 people; by way of comparison, the US has 29 beds per 10,000 people while China has 42.

The WEF report on Bangladesh states that the country’s entire public health system has 432 ICU beds, only 110 of which are outside the capital, Dhaka. The private healthcare sector adds another 737 – and this is for a population of 170 million. Italy has 4.1 doctors on average per 1,000 people whereas Bangladesh has 0.5; that is based on official numbers, and a significant chunk of these doctors are either abroad or not practicing. At Dhaka’s medical college and hospital, the largest government medical facility in the country, over 500 patients seek critical care monthly, and more than 400 are turned away due to lack of capacity.

Dense population is another major challenge, the WEF report suggests that most families’ ability to eat depends on daily wages and 87% of employment is generated by the informal sector. The average household in Bangladesh has more than five members, and usually includes three generations. There is no way to separate the old and the young; in other words, to separate the productive adults from those whose age makes them more vulnerable to serious illness and death.

While a lot of people in Pakistan have been critical of Prime Minister Imran Khan’s policy of Ehsaas programme for the poor, this programme has been widely appreciated by international media. Similarly, Pakistan’s NDMA and the state came up with establishment of an emergency healthcare system in record time; maybe Bangladesh has some lessons here. South Asian states like India and Bangladesh need to maintain a balance between catchy words like social distancing and lockdown and feeding the poor. While keeping the rich garments tycoons afloat in the crisis may be important for Bangladesh, feeding the poor, testing people for coronavirus and erecting an emergency based health system should be top priority.

The writers are freelance journalists. They can be reached at adeelanaureen

Bangladesh’s vulnerability to COVID-19 stems from six major factors.