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OP-ED: More snakes than ladders

  • Published at 08:28 pm May 28th, 2020
Dhaka traffic
Many are desperate for things to go back to normal REUTERS

A mere return to normal is not possible -- we must do more than that

Nobody knows yet is rarely a satisfactory answer.

But if you are asking how severe the pandemic and its aftermath will be around the world, this still sounds about right. How long might it persist? Will countries that acted most promptly be safest from further outbreaks? What is the actual mortality rate?

With time, consensus will emerge on the most important scientific unknowns remaining. The same cannot be said however for predicting the geopolitical impact, even if you discount the capricious likes of President Trump.

This crisis ought to make the case for an international new deal to combat the threats posed by climate change and inequality inevitable. But price falls and mass unemployment could just as easily facilitate an asset grab bonanza for the global 1%.  

Policy-makers can only guess at the eventual depth of the economic depression wrought by the virus. Everyone knows the house is collapsing, but it could be over a year before we see where exactly the cards have landed. 

Too soon to tell still holds true for some pandemic questions.

For Bangladesh, even a super-cyclone like Amphan provides a more straightforward challenge. Long experience and preparation have built the systems and shelter that allows the nation to protect many more lives than was possible with storms of this magnitude in the past.  

Hundreds of thousands of livelihoods may have been damaged by last week’s cyclone, but these can all be rebuilt. Protecting human life came first and foremost.

No such uniform policy is possible for the pandemic. With lockdown being eased or planned to be eased across many different countries over the summer, the world seems destined to reach a tipping point where safety first withers away in favour of kick-starting business.

This is not quite the same as going back to square one. Physical distancing has certainly slowed the virus in many places, and bought vital breathing space for researchers to catch up. 

But unless and until a definitive vaccine or treatment emerges, the sense that survival of the fittest (or, more accurately, the most fortunate) is leading national policies, may take over for a while.

This will apply even more ruthlessly for economies. With business confidence and cash flow tanking worldwide, US-China rivalries that might otherwise have been focused on technology and space races this decade, could give way to louder every-superpower-for-itself rhetoric and actual tariffs and trade wars that only deepen global depression.

Bangladesh faces both export earnings and remittances being dragged down at the same time. Even though we will not be the only country so affected, it is clearly a higher priority than ever to build much more resilience into the domestic economy. 

We should not be planning for a mere reversion to norm after a global downturn. A country that may need to feed 220 million people by 2050 requires much more than that.

Some megatrends such as Bangladesh’s demographic dividend ought to draw more ou-sourcing from China over the coming decade, whatever happens. Manufacturing and technical excellence can certainly be grown much more at home; the speed and skill with which engineers and scientists in Bangladesh’s private and NGO sectors have manufactured ventilators and innovated treatments for Covid alone is testament to that. 

Investing more in infrastructure projects and communication links on the scale of Padma Bridge and Metro Rail is clearly an imperative. 

But while megaprojects offer an important path for growth, to truly boost domestic wealth creation, Bangladesh must face up to its need to do more to build human capital. This is easier said than done.

Cheap labour is Bangladesh’s very own resource curse. Although always recognized as the nation’s most important asset, its very abundance has historically hampered investment in education and productivity. 

To get a realistic sense of how far there is left to go, consider how it is two generations after independence and three after Ekushey, the nation still lives with nearly one in three adults classed as illiterate. Little surprise then that around 140 countries are more productive and above Bangladesh in global per capita GDP rankings, even though by sheer size alone, the country is one of the 40 largest economies.  

If Bangladesh is truly to maximize its potential, it must properly prioritize investment in education and workplace skills for all its people. 

Assuming the worst and preparing for the best is a prudent course in most circumstances.

If the pandemic and its aftermath are going to send Bangladesh more snakes, it urgently needs to build more of its own ladders.

Niaz Alam is Dhaka Tribune’s London Bureau Chief.

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