Hossain Zillur Rahman – Executive Chairman, Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC), academician, economist, BRAC Chairperson, and former Adviser to the Caretaker Government – in conversation with Mizanur Rahman Khan of Prothom Alo.
Prothom Alo: Many people think that lockdowns are only applicable or effective in developed countries, not to developing ones like Bangladesh. What are your thoughts?
Hossain Zillur: The question is of dealing with two crises simultaneously. Both the health crisis and the economic crisis must be dealt with. A month of lockdown is a must. Whether the country is rich, or poor is not the question right now. Identifying the hotspots of the infection and determining the precise lockdown strategy is key. Essential services will remain operational despite the lockdown, but it also needs to be clearly defined. There is also a need to maintain social distancing when distributing relief. More tests are being done, more patients are being identified, an upward trend such as this may continue the entire month.
Prothom Alo: Wuhan has seen success after a lockdown of two months. How do we find the hidden hotspots?
Hossain Zillur: The task of identifying hotspots has to be strengthened. Narayanganj is the most vulnerable right now; strict lockdown has to be ensured. In Dhaka too. Areas, where the spread of infection is limited, must be kept isolated. Since kits are limited, collecting information on proxy indicators, such as crowds of suspected Corona patients in hospitals, can help identify the hotspot early. The strict control of traffic, such as inter-district traffic and supply of essential commodities must be ensured while maintaining social distance. An overall package is required.
Prothom Alo: What do you think is the persisting problem in treating the corona-infected?
Hossain Zillur: Naturally, from the beginning, there has been a significant loss of morale among our health workers. They did not have Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) but they were the victims of blame. Later we have seen some progress. The month of April is very important to us. In the future, the crisis will deepen. The lack of preparation is undeniable.
It is very important to highlight those working on the frontlines, including health workers, law enforcement workers, and journalists, along with donations of protective equipment. It is also important for them to know what language we are using to refer to them. Many young MBBS doctors are yet to join the efforts. We need to come up with an emergency plan to organize them. I will reiterate that it is essential to ensure food security and relief activities by preventing the theft of such donations.
Prothom Alo: What are your thoughts on sending money through mobile services to avoid corruption and wastage?
Hossain Zillur: Bangladesh has a strong foot in mobile banking. This strategy cannot be the sole one. This is because if there’s no food, there is no money. We won’t get into the argument of cash or food. Where possible, money can be sent via mobile services. However, I have seen in previous studies that those who want relief, find their way there. Now, relief through mobile will meet the conditions of distancing, and the recipient will also get financial freedom. I also spoke to donors on Thursday. The cities did not have such social security schemes before. Therefore, existing databases may not show them to be effective. People should not be deprived of relief based on their voter IDs, because there may be some who live in cities but are voters in their villages. All of us should be wary of such issues when identifying people and distributing relief. Many are falling into a state of poverty again. Our research organization PPRC and an organization called BIGD are currently conducting surveys across the country. It is phone-based. Its purpose is to understand the issue of urban poverty. We expect to release the results on April 16th. Difficulties also present opportunities; now we can focus on eliminating urban poverty.
Prothom Alo: June is the month of the budget announcement. How different should this budget be from the previous ones?
Hossain Zillur: I will talk about three specific things. Incentive package, 5 thousand in garments, and later 72 thousand 750 crore taka. This incentive should not be limited to a few formal sectors. The poor or needy, small and medium entrepreneurial class who are facing a tough lockdown this April are part of the informal sector. They need to have stimulus packages of an almost equal amount, and even allocation of the budget. The budget can come later, but right now, another package can be made, or priority to the informal sector given within existing packages. We will require this by May/June to make AMEs active. In the context of the upcoming budget, it is necessary to have a review of the budget item immediately. We need to identify the areas we can save on. For example, Boishakhi allowances may be withdrawn. The most important thing is to announce a package for the estimated 1 crore poor people of the country. However, the source of the package must be announced as well.
Prothom Alo: Suppose we cannot revert to the state where actual foreign exchange earnings of $60 bn to $70 bn come from the Garments and Remittance sources. This will result in a dire case of unemployment. Your thoughts?
Hossain Zillur: Keeping this in mind, a plan is needed to address the potential collapse of certain sectors. I hope that this Corona situation will act as a catalyst for change in thinking in the long run. The attempt to understand development solely through GDP has already taken a big hit. As I was already saying, the time of reliance on those drivers is coming to an end. Now we need to find a new driver of growth. A new concept of development is required, keeping people at the center. Policymakers need to change their thinking in this regard.
Prothom Alo: We have made progress in eliminating poverty. The number of poor people is a few crores. What is the direct impact of the 72 thousand crore taka incentive on these people? Have the owners of 90% of the country’s wealth and resources, responded to the pleas of the 10%?
Hossain Zillur: Though progress has been made in reducing poverty, there is a danger of deviation from this trend. In the global recession of 2008, there was a slowing down, which we overcame. Now I can very clearly see the reality of a short-term increase in poverty.
The incentive is mainly for several groups, isn’t it? We need to provide food for at least 40 lakh people now. Voiceless people like Bede and tea-workers should also be covered in this scheme. If you add these marginal people, the number will exceed 1 crore. Even if the state gives them help, the need for individuals or the rich to come forward remains great. The rich have to be socially responsible. Their lack of response is unfortunate. But some may be donating in silence while some may be giving little but promoting a lot.
Prothom Alo: Garment workers’ leader Nazma Begum has lamented that out of the $35 billion exports, only $6 billion worth of purchase order was canceled, and yet this cancellation led to such unemployment and nonpayment of wages.
Hussein Zillur: Asking workers to return to their workplace amidst a lockdown has been an extremely irresponsible task. Even if it sounds difficult to hear, some groups (including the RMG sector) have a non-symmetrical and indirect influence on our economy’s policymaking, especially regarding the distribution of facilities. This time, too, we have seen it. The time has come for us to expressly say that we do acknowledge the role that this sector plays in the development of our country’s economy. But the idea that the economic potential of Bangladesh is dependent or based solely on them, is not just. They have led many of us to believe that without them, the economy of Bangladesh will collapse, our country will not run. We need to get rid of this delusion.
Prothom Alo: Can this crisis be long term?
Hossain Zillur: Many kinds of long-term crises are ahead. Two countries in the Middle East are showing a hostile attitude towards Bangladeshi migrants. The possibility of a remittance shock is extremely risky. There is no definite answer as to what will happen in the future. We may not even be able to predict what kind of problems may come our way. So our challenge will be to work together to tackle the challenges and increase our ability to move forward using our methods.
Prothom Alo: Thank you.
Hossain Zillur: Thank you.
The link redirects to the original article published in Prothom Alo in Bengali.