• The economic disruption caused by COVID-19 threatens millions of livelihoods in Bangladesh.
  • The country has more than 50 million workers in the informal sector.
  • Here are some steps the government should take, including an aggressive cash-transfer program.

Bangladesh is not new to disasters or major humanitarian crises. Sitting astride a river delta at the bottom of the Himalayan range, the country is fighting a longstanding battle against the impact of climate change and currently hosts the world’s largest refugee camp along its southern border. In its 49-year existence, Bangladesh and its people have shown tremendous resilience in fending off not only natural disasters such as floods and cyclones but also manmade ones, like the 1997 Asian financial crisis and 2008 global financial crisis.

The COVID-19 pandemic, however, is a crisis of a completely different magnitude and one that will require a response of unprecedented scale. Bangladesh’s leaders in the public and private sector must come together to respond to the immediate threats to health systems and the long-term effects to the country’s economy.

How the government has responded

Bangladesh detected its first confirmed coronavirus case on 8 March. As of this writing, the number of confirmed cases in Bangladesh is more than 620, and the virus has claimed more than 30 lives.

In early February, the government evacuated close to 300 Bangladeshi citizens from China. The government also installed screening devices across its international airports and land-ports, which have so far screened more than 650,000 passengers, of which 37,000 were immediately quarantined.

The government also moved swiftly to transform two religious centers into temporary quarantine facilities. In addition, after the first case was detected, the government closed education institutions and encouraged all non-essential businesses to move their activities online. It initially declared a nationwide public holiday until April 4 which has been subsequently extended to April 14.

Despite the presence of a large Bangladeshi diaspora in Europe, the government also took the bold step of suspending all flights from Europe. Learning from its East Asian neighbors including South Korea and Singapore, the government launched an aggressive awareness campaign through national mobile phone operators. This has been complemented by private-sector cooperation, with the government launching more than 500 telephone hotlines and cross-promoting private service providers on its platform.

In order to ensure that frontline healthcare workers have the necessary personal protective equipment (PPE), the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) are currently coordinating with five of its member companies to convert their production lines to produce 500,000 PPEs.

The economic threat

The response so far is admirable, yet this pandemic also poses an economic and humanitarian crisis. While many countries have made good starts in stimulus packages, Bangladesh has been slower to react. The Prime Minister initially announced an emergency stimulus package of $600 million (equivalent to 0.2% of GDP) on 25 March, which on 4 April was enhanced significantly to $8.5 billion (equivalent to 2.5% of GDP).

According to the forecast released by the Economist Intelligence Unit on 26 March, the global economy is expected to contract by -2.2% in 2020. These effects are expected to be more pronounced in major G20 economies, such as Germany, Italy, the United Kingdom and the US – all countries that are major markets for Bangladesh’s most vital tradeable good: readymade garments.