Living with coronavirus: Life vs livelihood

  •  Published at 08:36 pm April 13th, 2020

How we work together to handle this crisis now may shape our nation moving forward


What is more important to a person? Staying healthy or being able to feed the family?

What is more important to a nation? Having a healthy population or ensuring economic growth?

Health and economic prosperity are directly related, and so these should not be “either-or” choices for a person or a nation, but they are today.

I am certainly over-simplifying the massively complex situation we are in. We are all trying to make sense of where we stand today and where we will be tomorrow. We are all in it together: The elderly widow living on her meager social safety net payment from the government; the rickshaw-puller who doesn’t have passengers any longer; the owner of a small ready-made garment factory who has seen most of his orders cancelled; our prime minister, who is constantly trying to balance between the medical and the socioeconomic considerations.

For there is a great debate that is brewing, one that is inevitable. It is the debate of saving lives or saving the economy. It is questioning whether, by saving lives now, we risk far greater damage to life down the road.

Social distancing has been universally accepted as the most effective solution to combating the Covid-19 pandemic. To ensure that, practically all countries are going through prolonged economic shutdown, including Bangladesh -- where the shutdown was extended to April 25.

We have locked down our schools, businesses, transportation services, trade -- pretty much everything. According to a Brac survey conducted across 64 districts from March 31 to April 5 amongst low-income people, 68% of the respondents support this decision.

On the other hand, things that we have locked down naturally contribute to our GDP, and more importantly and immediately, to the income of tens of millions of people that depend on daily or seasonal wages to feed their families.

While social distancing and economic shutdowns do look to be the solution for rich and developed nations, for a country like Bangladesh, the same policies may not hold the same weight. According to the same Brac survey, 14% of low-income people do not have any food at home due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Saving livelihoods, and hence the economy

It is extremely important to analyze the overall impact of an economic shutdown, no matter how difficult it may be.

The first point of note is the option of social distancing to save lives. According to influential epidemiological models, a higher proportion of the population would die in wealthy countries than in low-income countries because the former have a much higher ratio of elderly people. So, the argument is that the health burden is much less in developing countries such as Bangladesh.

Secondly, the lockdown prevents daily and seasonal income resulting in the poor and the economically vulnerable shouldering the heaviest economic burden of the condition. While the coronavirus pandemic is undoubtedly the health crisis of our times, for Bangladesh, as mentioned by Brac Executive Director Asif Saleh and echoed by many others, it is as much a “humanitarian crisis.”

According to research by Yale economist Professor Mushfiq Mobarak: “Policies imposed in rich countries to fight the coronavirus could have adverse effects in low-income nations -- potentially endangering more lives than they save.” 

Saving lives

Let’s look at the other side of the coin.

Is it possible to put a price on human life? Can you put a dollar or taka amount on just how much a life is worth? Think about it for a moment. Think about your loved ones, your family, your closest friends. Could you imagine trading their lives away for any sum of money?

When it comes to saving lives, rational thought abandons us. Human beings may be thought of as rational creatures from an economic point of view, but there are moments when we are guided largely by emotions. Saving our loved ones certainly fits that bill.

Think of the poor farmer who has nothing but a small piece of land that provides for his family. Every one of you knows at least one such farmer who has sold that piece of land to save the life of a near and dear one who fell sick. That decision is not driven by economics but by human values which do not compare the value of life to the livelihood generated by the piece of land.

You have met many such people in the lobbies of our expensive private hospitals on a non-Covid day.

As a human being, we balance the rational and emotional every day in our own way, and perhaps more on a Covid-day.

As a nation, should pure economic rationality prevail? What is the place of emotion in policy making? Are we not trying to build a prosperous and a caring nation at the same time? Isn’t that the promise of 2041?

Saving lives and livelihoods

Medical experts and epidemiologists will recommend a total lockdown till we move past the peak infection point in the country. In Bangladesh, the numbers are just rising now. The stricter the lockdown, the faster we will go past the peak because the disease transmission will be contained.

The looser the lockdown, the wider the disease will spread, and the longer we will have to extend the lockdown. The looser the lockdown, the more vicious the cycle. In this respect, any social and religious gathering must be strictly controlled in consultation with community and religious leaders.

Economists and economic planners will recommend easing the lockdown as soon as possible to reduce the economic burden on the whole nation but, more importantly, on the poor. The timing of these recommendations will depend on how long we can support the economically vulnerable population who cannot feed the family without daily and seasonal wages.

So, the choice seems to be strict lockdown and mobilization of subsidy hand in hand. The longer the lockdown, the longer we must mobilize the subsidy. The hungrier we are, the more meaningless the concept of lockdown, and hence the more appealing the proposition of ignoring it.

Our government spends approximately Tk1,000 crore per month on about 10 million people, not including the education stipends. The March payment has mostly been done, and the June payment will be done in advance within May. This is a generous and timely move by the government.

A back-of-the-envelope calculation shows that at most 5 million families who depend on existing subsidies and daily and seasonal wages may need subsidy during the lockdown phase. Some of these families will already be covered by existing social safety net programs which are being fast-tracked.

New money will need to be mobilized to create a “Corona Safety Net.” A standard subsidy of Tk3,000 per household per month means Tk1,500cr per month at the most, and possibly somewhat less by accounting for existing beneficiaries.

There is a groundswell movement across the entire country from students, volunteers, wealthy businessmen, community leaders, NGOs -- with some efforts supported by district and upazila administration -- mobilizing food, non-food necessities, and money for the needy in local areas. However, it is quite likely that these necessary and admirable efforts constitute a small fraction of the total need.

So, where will the bulk of the money come from? The government and zakat.

The government has already announced Tk72,000cr worth of short-term loans at very favourable interest rates for the industry, much of which will go to the industrial workers’ salaries. The Corona Safety Net targeted to the people who have lost their income (75% on average, according to the Brac report) will be in the form of newly created emergency social safety nets.

Zakat in Bangladesh, informally estimated to be about Tk30,000cr per year, may supplement the government’s social safety net. Given that most of the zakat is collected during the month of Ramadan, it is a good opportunity to create the zakat component of the Corona Safety Net now.

The zakat part may have to be administered in a decentralized manner, allowing freedom to the zakat givers to contribute in their local areas, perhaps with some guidance from the district and upazila administration which are currently on the lookout for rapidly emerging pockets of poverty.

So, a combination of subsidy from the government, zakat from the zakat givers and voluntary efforts by communities across the country will make not only the new needy sustain but all of us sustain. After all, we are but threads of the same fabric. A run on the fabric in one location ultimately makes the whole fabric come apart.

We are now at war. The likes of which none of us has ever experienced in its scope, speed, and invisibility. The decisions must be swift and collaborative.

The government, private sector, religious leaders, and community mobilizers must come together -- in swift and continuous coordination -- to fight this war to save lives and livelihoods.

If we do this right, we may see an easing of lockdowns sooner rather than later. We may still have to follow some rules. We may allow the population below 60 to go to work. When we go out, we may wear reusable cloth masks as a mandatory legal requirement.

We may develop facilities for social isolation of the medically vulnerable. We may maintain strict lockdown of the still-hot zones as long as necessary to contain the virus.

How we work together to handle this crisis now may shape our nation and society moving forward. Can we be rational and emotional at the same time? Can we save lives and livelihoods at the same time?

Can we be human and go with our emotions, recognizing the need to prevent every death possible and provide for the economically vulnerable? Can we dictate rationality, where we see a partial opening of the economy with strict enforcement of rules of social conduct and caring for the medically vulnerable?

Can we do all this to build the Sonar Bangla, prosperous and equitable? 

Anir Chowdhury is a US techpreneur turned Bangladeshi govpreneur serving as the policy advisor of a2i in the ICT Division and Cabinet Division supported by UNDP.