An employee of the Mugda Medical College and Hospital in Dhaka collects a swab sample from a resident to test for the coronavirus. Photo: Munir Uz Zaman / AFP

“The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but those who watch them without doing anything.”Albert Einstein 

The government of Bangladesh seems to have no choice but to reimpose a lockdown to quell the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic. The need for a second lockdown has arisen because of the total mismanagement of the first one. The premature reopening of the economy backfired. 

Long periods of lockdown have severely affected a wide range of sectors from agriculture to manufacturing, information, hotels, transport and tourism sectors. A million garment workers have lost their jobs.  

Normally, international remittances represent around 7% of Bangladesh’s gross domestic product, according to the the World Economic Forum. However, the pandemic has had an acute effect on Bangladeshi migrants abroad because most of them live and work in countries that have imposed strict lockdowns.

A contributing factor to the decline in remittances is the fall in oil prices affecting the Middle East where the biggest percentage of Bangladeshi migrants work.  

According to the World Bank, total remittances by migrant Bangladeshi workers will decrease by US$14 billion this year. That is 25% down on 2019. The decrease in monthly remittance, which average from $300 to $600, will have severe effects on millions of households in Bangladesh. 

All this and more beg a critical question. Is the Sheikh Hasina-led Awami League government doing enough to ensure accountable and transparent administration to minimize the spread of the pandemic? 

So far, Bangladesh has had almost 100,000 cases and more than 1,300 deaths. A group of local non-governmental organizations conducted a study recently and found that three out of five people in the country were at high risk of serious health and economic vulnerabilities, with job losses affecting those who are already poverty-stricken. 

According to the study, among the 100.22 million people at high risk in terms of health and economics, 53.64 million are facing extreme poverty, earning less than 160 taka ($1.90) per day. The study also found that more than half of these people already live in extremely poverty-stricken conditions and say they have already run out of money. 

According to the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM), the rate of poverty in Bangladesh may have doubled to 40.9% since the beginning of the pandemic. Since March, the average family income has fallen by 74%. 

Farmers also faced a loss of more than $6 billion just between March and May. 

Manufacturing has suffered tremendously, particularly the ready-made garments sector, which accounts for 80% of the country’s export earnings. More than four million garment workers depend on the textile industry for their livelihood and are thus severely affected.

Because of fewer orders from the United States and Europe, more than 1,000 factories have closed and more than two million workers have become unemployed. Conversely, the prices of food, rents and other basic necessities have risen. 

Recently, the anti-corruption organization Transparency International published a report detailing the government’s mismanagement of the Covid-19 crisis. 

It said the government led by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had failed in sectors such as:

  • disaster management
  • testing
  • adequate hospital care 
  • trained medical staff 
  • patients’ access to care 
  • supply of intensive-care units and ventilators 
  • supply of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health-care workers
  • allocation of funds for the 50 million unemployed daily workers
  • alleged partisan preferences in the distribution of basic necessities
  • corruption in the distribution of funds to the abject poor
  • medical-waste management 
  • corruption in the purchase of medical supplies 
  • transparency in the purchase of ventilators 

Unfortunately, the list does not end there. Even amid the extremity of corruption and mismanagement, the Awami League government has not abandoned even temporarily its characteristic surveillance and abusive actions against journalists.

The Ministry of Information has formed a cell to monitor 30 private television channels across the country to monitor “propaganda.” For those who know the Awami League, this is just code for monitoring any voices of dissent, of which there are many. A total of 37 journalists have had 67 cases filed against them for reporting on the corruption, theft and embezzlement of funds by the Awami League during the relief efforts. 

All things considered, the question of whether Sheikh Hasina’s government will be able to manage, coordinate and ensure the country’s well-being and security in terms of health, morale and economics is a rhetorical one. If the performance of the Awami League were to be graded, it would fail dismally.

What more can be expected of a government that has continuously, since 2009, coerced its way to power without the people’s mandate? There will obviously be no accountability or transparency, nor fear of losing votes. After all, the Awami League does not bother with votes, except to manipulate them. 

Regretfully, Bangladesh is stuck with no visible chance of a different regime, even in the distant future, because of the lack of a popular wish for change.

Change does not appear magically from rhetoric and criticism of the Awami League. It would entail identifying the myriad problems that have resulted from the essentially one-party authoritarianism, and making efforts to establish and put into practice the solutions. 

That awakening has not occurred in Bangladesh since 2009. The question is: Will it, and if and when it does, will it be too late?

Sabria Chowdhury Balland

Sabria Chowdhury Balland is a political analyst focusing on the politics of the U.S. and Bangladesh in international publications. She is the co-author and editor of Bangladesh: A Suffering People Under State Terrorism (Peter Lang, 2020), A former elected member of the US Democratic Party overseas (Democrats Abroad). She is the Editor-in-Chief of Aequitas Review. She is also the Vice President & Treasurer of The Coalition for Human Rights & Democracy in Bangladesh based in the U.S.