Can Covid-19 present an opportunity to pursue development the right way?
The Bangladesh government has been focusing on some of the core social development opportunities since the birth of its country to provide the fundamental needs of people -- food, shelter, health care, and education.
Despite facing many road bumps due to political unrest and frequent natural disasters, it has continued to achieve significant improvements in its people’s living standards. However, just like the rest of the world, Bangladesh is also facing the brutal consequences of the coronavirus crisis.
The government took no time to follow expert advice in sending people to shelter in homes, closed businesses, and most importantly, arranged to supply food to people who cannot afford it.
One of the most brilliant minds in the world, Nobel laureate economist Amartya Sen suggested that access to food, health care, and education are the basics in improving living standards and the preconditions to solving most of the human sufferings in the world.
The coronavirus crisis brought the entire world to a halt after it spread from Wuhan, China in 2019. Unfortunately, it has a history rooted in another tragedy: The great Chinese famine dated in 1959-61 which cost China anywhere from 15 to 20 million people.
During the famine, in some parts of China, people were eating wild animals in order to survive that were not safe to eat. The Chinese government allowed people the right to farm and eat wild animals, which unfortunately became a full-scale traditional practice.
For years, this has been a concern for infectious disease researchers and sure enough, it brought the Covid-19 catastrophe to the world. Global subject matter experts and the World Health Organization concluded that animal-trading wet markets, where the wild animals were slaughtered, ended up infecting humans. It is noteworthy that the great Chinese famine happened as the Communist Party started its economic recovery plan by undercutting the agricultural sector. They moved from an agrarian economy to an industrial economy -- an income-focused populist strategy.
Dr Sen explains in his book, Development as Freedom, democracy depends on the use of it. Democracy doesn’t mean much if the pre-conditions for a better civilization are not fulfilled and people are left in extreme poverty.
What we are seeing now even in the most developed countries are exceptionally high rates of deaths due to coronavirus in areas with poor living conditions, as a result of inequalities in the societies.
Professor Sen cautioned us for decades to improve social justice and the living conditions of people as a priority in the human development process. Public policy mechanisms that are focused on winning elections by targeting income growth, gross domestic product growth, narrowing trade deficit, lowering public debts often leave too many people in poor living conditions.
As a recently promoted middle-income country, Bangladesh is expected to increase its income and GDP to fulfill the growth requirements and industrialization expected to support such a target, but agriculture, education, and health care can still be major economic boosters if opportunities are given to all of its citizens.
Bangladesh has been dealing with limited resources and has past experience in dealing with famine. There are millions of people dealing with chronic poverty and the scarcity of food may create serious panic and make it even harder to distribute food among the population.
Even in recent years, there are records of people dying in stampedes during the collection from charities -- like the 2015 tragedy in Dhaka, killing 23 people. Cautions must be taken to avoid any repetition of such an unfortunate event.
Even though Bangladesh has made tremendous progress in agriculture and has become a food independent nation, food scarcity can complicate public health, social and political stability, and even national security.
Bangladesh will need to be more prepared and find alternative resources to be prepared for any severe food shortages. Large populous countries in the world like India, China, the US, and Russia have been buying and/or leasing agricultural lands from countries with abundant lands for food security. Perhaps Bangladesh may consider similar initiatives to utilize its agricultural expertise and manpower with already present experience in working overseas.
Bangladesh partnered with organizations like Unicef, Unesco, WHO in dealing with high infant mortality and women’s health and education as the building blocks of the country.
The country successfully eradicated polio, brought deadly malaria under control, improved life expectancy, and particularly women’s health.
WHO reports, between 1990 and 2018, mortality of children under five years of age decreased from 151/1,000 to 32/1,000 live births, and maternal mortality between 1990-2018 decreased from 574/100,000 to 173/100,000.
When it came to controlling high population growth, instead of violating childbearing rights of women, Bangladesh offered women education free of cost and created social awareness on birth control.
Bangladesh can utilize the same process now to improve people’s health by encouraging good diets, curbing unhealthy habits like smoking, and of course, improving hygiene. Millions of people in Bangladesh are still living in extreme poverty.
On top of that, it is more likely that millions of Bangladeshis are going to be losing their employment and businesses both at home and abroad from closed garment factories or people returning from overseas due to layoffs.
With the collaboration of various agencies dealing with the priorities for human development, such as food, health care, and education, Bangladesh can achieve sustainable development out of the Covid-19 crisis.
This is a time to get those millions of unfortunate Bangladeshis out of poverty. It is a time to welcome those who may be coming back from overseas hopelessly after losing jobs and those who may be losing jobs at home.
By utilizing information systems and blockchain technologies developed under the 2020 vision, perhaps the skilled labourers that Bangladesh will be getting can be properly allocated all over the country in many development projects to improve living conditions as well as critical measures in tackling climate changes and rising sea levels.
Bangladesh has been improving telecommunication and internet services for everyone to offer education for the 21st century that will be paying good dividends now. It has been on track for economic growth, which has certainly helped the government implement many social development works and even sheltered a million Rohingya refugees at a time when even the wealthiest countries continued to close their doors on people in need.
There may be food crises, budget deficits, trade deficits, but at a time like this, the top priority should be covering the basic needs of the people who are in dire need. Bangladesh has a great advantage, and that is to utilize its huge workforce in the country.
Building environmentally sound housing for all, securing food and clean water, focusing on health care systems, utilizing the ICT initiative to create transparent and fair governance -- these will improve millions of lives and move them out of poverty.
Poverty creates an unequal society, and to get the society back on track, we need to provide additional resources to those who fell too far behind. The year 2020 is not only a year to remember for the horriffc pandemic but also a year with an orphaned world with very few global leaders able to think of the global population over their personal agendas.
Fortunately, the Bangladesh government continues to focus on improving the living standards of its people. The government is now handed a big responsibility of providing food and shelter to almost half of the US population living on land the size of the state of Iowa.
The country can create jobs around long-term development projects as part of the Covid-19 recovery. During this societal stress due to the pandemic, governments are going to be judged harshly.
If Bangladesh continues to remain supportive of its people and maintain its focus on Dr Sen’s core fundamentals beliefs which include food, health, and education, Bangladesh will overcome this crisis a lot sooner.
Mazher Mir is the Adviser to Roybi Robots, Mountain View, California, USA.