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Confronting the State

COVID-19 has left people to grapple with urgent questions about their future and come to terms with the stark realities of not just their lives, but also the nation-state itself. The immediate economic impact, especially on the lives of the vulnerable urban and rural populations of Bangladesh, has shaped their perceptions. The unraveling uncertainties around their livelihood have taken a hit on people’s mental health, even if they have been physically spared. 

According to PHASE II findings of PPRC-BIGD Rapid Response Research on the Economic Impact of COVID-19, on average, there was a 49% decline in the income of informal economy workers between February and June than before. Generally, people’s incomes were 42% below pre-COVID levels while the proportion of new poor was 21.7%, only 1.1% less than that in April during the first round of the survey. The reduced earnings, change/loss of jobs coupled with rising expenditure burdens such as house rent, utility, health, and transport costs, have led people to various coping mechanisms. 30% of the surveyed respondents have been forced to cut down their food intake, while 15% of the urban poor in Dhaka consumed fewer than three meals a day. Around 13.3% of people were forced to leave the cities in June, 15.6% from Dhaka alone, unable to keep up with the piling debts and dues. All this has given birth to a sense of pessimism amidst these people. 

For people who have little idea about where their next meal is coming from, let alone whether they will recover from the pandemic, there is very little to be optimistic about. When questioned whether their economic state will improve, remain the same, or decline in the future, 75%-86% of surveyed rural households across the vulnerable, moderate, and extreme poor categories remained pessimistic, while for the urban categories it ranged from 73% to 81%. The majority of these households belonged to occupational categories such as unskilled labor, small business owners, and domestic help.  In such a scenario, people pin their hopes on the government, confronting the state to address all the challenges that lie ahead. The PPRC-BIGD study finds that only 15.8% of the urban samples received an average of Tk1737 as cash relief from the government, suggesting that the relief distribution amount is only token. Despite having their names on a beneficiary list, only 44% of all respondents reported having received their due support. The case where the government fails to deliver on its promise is what leads to further discontent, distrust, and distress. 

Whether it is a negativity bias or defensive pessimism at play, the policy regime has a significant contribution towards the type of mood-setting in a period of crisis. Inadequacies in government response – arising from misgovernance, mistargeting, and misallocation of resources – are contributing to this national mood. Issues of tokenism in case of the amount of support and prevalence of corruption and nepotism in relief distribution remain key factors driving this disposition. 

The government must tackle these challenges and create a new national mood to move past this crisis as a nation. More credible policy steps will be vital in altering perceptions and determining how people transform their situations by adopting a more positive, head-on approach.