Country Director of the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in Bangladesh Manmohan Parkash has said a carefully-crafted exit strategy that draws a fine balance between normalising socioeconomic activities and containing the spread of virus is needed for Bangladesh.
"There’s a growing debate among the policymakers, if easing of the restrictions is necessary now to help restart the economic activity. Given the potential severity of the pandemic and it’s unclear and unknown impact, a carefully-crafted exit strategy that draws a fine balance between normalising socioeconomic activities and containing the spread of virus is needed," he said in an interview with UNB.
Manmohan Parkash said both health-related and non-health related actions together are needed to control the spread of the disease and open up the economy.
He mentioned that health-related actions would include ramping up healthcare procedures, systems and supplies while non-health actions would include easing up of supply chains and logistics, particularly for the movement of much-needed essential goods and services, restoration of livelihood, manufacturing activities and managing large number of migrant workers coming from rural areas to work in Dhaka.
Replying a question how should the COVID-19-induced current shutdown be lifted, the ADB country director said the shutdown needs to be lifted cautiously in a pragmatic manner to allow economic activities while maintaining the basic health instructions for managing COVID-19 outbreak and sustaining the progresses achieved so far.
He said the ongoing shutdown is seriously affecting economic activities, including employment and livelihood opportunities.
"The poor and the vulnerable are the hardest hit by the shutdown, which is essential to save people from infection and to control the spread of the disease. There’s no certainty on the behaviour of the epidemiological curve and hence it is nearly impossible to predict the ideal time frame to ease the lockdown."
Easing of restrictions cannot be sudden and complete. An environment needs to be created where people will feel reassured to go back to work without fear of getting infected, Manmohan said.
"Strict enforcement of rules and regulations is a key. Good law and order will help ensure social distancing. Cooperation from people is key to lift the shutdown step by step, adopting a slow but steady process."
Factories & Safety Plan
Manmohan said the factories that reopening must have a health and safety plan. They should educate the workers also about the best practices that they should follow at the workplace. Crowded factories may consider initiating multiple shifts to avoid accommodating too many workers in one room.
He mentioned that the factory authorities should distribute adequate simple protective gears such as masks among the workers and carry out awareness programmes for the employees.
"Public transportation system like buses may be allowed with proper spacing of passengers, for example with less than 30 percent occupancy."
Manmohan said the shutdown needs to be lifted cautiously in a pragmatic manner to allow economic activities while maintaining the basic health instructions for managing COVID-19 outbreak and sustaining the progresses achieved so far.
Bangladesh’s Request & ADB’s Response
The ADB country director also said they are working hard to quickly respond to the government’s request for $500 million in budgetary support.
"We’re also working hard to quickly respond to the government’s request for $500 million in budgetary support to augment the government of Bangladesh’s efforts to manage the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on the economy, health, and livelihoods," he said.
ADB board in its meeting on May 7 will decide the fate of this request from Bangladesh side.
Manmohan said this budgetary support will help the government address the challenges posed by COVID-19, with a strong focus on alleviating fiscal strain, expanding social safety net for vulnerable groups, providing increased salary support to export-oriented manufacturing industry workers and low-interest loans to industrial sectors and farmers.
"I am confident Bangladesh will successfully manage the COVID-19 challenges with help from all stakeholders and partners," he said.
Manmohan also said the Manila-based lending organisation on April 30 approved $100 million in assistance to support the government's efforts to address the immediate public health requirements of combatting the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.
"This support will help strengthen Bangladesh’s response to the COVID-19 outbreak by providing urgently needed health equipment, medical supplies, diagnostic systems, and upgrading of the capacity of the health workforce," he said.
He mentioned that this project will support the immediate procurement of equipment and supplies for testing; upgrade of medical infrastructure; and the development of system and community capacities for surveillance, prevention, and response to the pandemic in Bangladesh.
Saying that over the last few weeks, Bangladesh has taken decisive actions to manage the COVID-19 outbreak in the country, the ADB country director said the next set of policy measures need to focus on maintaining the progress achieved so far while looking for strategies to resume economic activities and livelihood opportunities for people.
"Though good progress has been achieved in controlling the spread of the virus, through the closure of offices and businesses, it has come at a high-economic cost," he added.
Lives & Livelihoods
Manmohan said it has disrupted the lives and livelihoods of the people. Businesses and industries are closed, demand for goods diminished, supply chains have collapsed, daily wagers have lost livelihood, and many employers are finding it hard to retain employees.
Talking about details of health-related actions that are necessary or would help, Manmohan said fundamental change that is needed for the containment of COVID-19 contagion is the human behavioural change. This includes limiting people’s mobility, maintaining physical distance, and personal hygiene.
He said the first policy change needed is to move from physical containment to medical containment, which is Test, Trace and Quarantine. There should be more emphasis on testing. Currently, around 6,000 tests are carried out every day.
"This needs to be increased to 10,000-15,000 a day or even more. More testing would mean catching infections early, isolating patients and treating them faster for quicker recovery and lesser mortality. Tracing the contacts early will help containing the epidemic and quarantining them will help avoid the spread."
In this connection, Manmohan said Korea is a good example of overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic by following these principles of Test, Trace and Track.
Another key policy action needed, he said, is to protect and minimise the loss of front-line fighters including healthcare professionals and law enforcement personnel.
"Keeping them safe will help us fight the battle effectively. Providing them with proper protective gear, training, and support such as food, accommodation and recognition would help."
The ADB country director said the government has made good progress on developing additional infrastructure for quarantine and treatment by nominating hospitals, including in private sector.
Getting More Hospitals Ready
This should be continued, and if necessary, more hospitals could be prepared by refurbishment and make-shift arrangements of facilities. While increasing diagnostic testing will help avoid the community spread, faster procurement and distribution of medical supplies would greatly help to protect the health professionals and treating patients, added.
"Good progress has been made for procuring PPEs, including N95 masks. More are needed, and all efforts should be made, including at diplomatic levels, to procure these items."
Manmohan pointed another key policy action which is needed to be ensure is normal healthcare regime for non-Covid related illnesses. This can be done by designating hospitals solely for handling non-COVID- 19 related health matters.
There is general fear among the people to visit hospitals and this could be overcome with this as there will be specific hospitals where there will be no COVID-19 patients.
Lastly, he said, existing public health initiatives must continue. Further emphasis on cleanliness and sanitation will help. This is critically important as the dengue season is around the corner. Continuation of public awareness and capacity building of entities dealing with the pandemic will go a long way in behavior change, which is so essential to manage this crisis.
Talking about non-health related actions that can help, he said, restoring the normal supply chain and logistics for the seamless movement of essential goods and services is the first priority.
"This will help ensure adequate availability and accessibility of food and other essential items, particularly in this Ramadan period. Closer coordination among road and rail transporters, district administrations, traders, and market aggregators can help."
He mentioned that the current crunch in demand can be managed by increasing government expenditure, providing salary support to the workers, helping people to raise their incomes, creating employments, enhancing people’s mobility and boosting livelihoods in general.
Turning crisis into opportunities
"This crisis can be turned into opportunities for the future by improving healthcare system, public health, and supply system as well as coordination among various government agencies to deliver public services quickly and efficiently. Educational activities must continue with the help of ICT and online arrangements."
He praised the Government for announcing 'a very good social protection program'.
"Now it is critical to deliver the benefits to the targeted people to help them recover from the livelihood shocks that they suffered due to the lockdown. Post-harvest handling of the current boro crop needs to be completed quickly to avoid any losses from the seasonal rains and storms."
He put emphasis on a nationwide behavior change communication program could be launched to help people learn about the best practices in health, hygiene and nutrition.
"While Bangladesh has enough food to feed its entire population, the supply system must be managed well so that food is available, and everyone, particularly the poor, vulnerable and destitute, get enough food to eat."
Investing More in Health Sector
Responding to a query, Manmohan Parkash put emphasis on more investment in the health sector.
"A key lesson is that countries that invested more in their health sector as a percentage of GDP have been able to manage the crisis better, with better medical care for its citizens, and lesser mortality."
In this connection, Manmohan mentioned Germany, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Korea, and Japan as examples.
"Allocation for health sector and health-related items could be increased in the upcoming national budget. Incentives may be allocated for the pharmaceuticals, hospitals and health related industries and businesses. More support for research and development of communicable diseases, vaccines and treatments could be a priority."
Manmohan said the existing hospitals across the country could be categorised into two groups for treating COVID-19 patients and non-Covid-19 patients separately.
"Hospitals need to be selected for these separate functions strategically so that people can avail treatment in their own region and do not have to travel a long distance to go to hospitals."
Adequate supply of medicines, medical staff, and oxygen supply needs to be increased to provide effective support to the patients with breathing problems to help avoid putting them on ventilator, as ventilators are scarce, he said adding that there could be closer coordination between the specialised treatment centres and general hospitals.
Bangladesh Bank aims to release new currency notes of Tk 25,000 crore in the market before the Eid.
Official sources said the money would be released about a week before the Eid-ul-Fitr.
“We’ve set a target to release Tk 25,000 crore before Eid,” Sirajul Islam, Bangladesh Bank spokesman and executive director, told UNB.
He said the initial target is to release Tk 22,000 crore. Last year, the central bank released Tk 18,000 crore.
Also Read - BB to launch Tk-200 note on Bangabandhu’s birth centenary
Some officials at the central bank said the decision to release new cash in the market is part of its move to withdraw old notes and replace them with new ones to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
They cited the example of China which withdrew about 60,000 crore Yuan and replaced them with new ones after the coronavirus outbreak.
Sirajul, however, rejected the idea, saying: “No such decision was taken. The release of new notes is unrelated to the withdrawal of old notes.”
Another top official at the Bangladesh Bank said that it is a regular job of the central bank to replace old notes with new ones.
Also Read - BB to release new Tk 100 bank note on March 7
Official sources said the central bank is releasing the new notes as part of its market management as it thinks there will be a big demand for extra currency before the Eid.
Normally, they said, every year the central bank releases new bank notes in the market to cool down the pressure as the liquidity demand goes up high in the market for various reasons. These notes are always a replacement for old notes, they said.
Currency Management Department of the central bank said the new notes will include Tk 500, Tk 200, Tk 100, Tk 50, Tk 20 and Tk 10.
Of these notes, Tk-200 notes will absolutely new as the central bank earlier decided that it will release new note of Tk 200 on the occasion of Mujib Year to commemorate the birth centenary of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.
Officials said they might not need to print the Tk-1000 notes as there are enough new such notes in the central bank’s volt.
Mango growers in Chapainawabganj, known as the mango capital of the country , are passing their days in great worries as the marketing of their produce has become uncertain amid the restrictions imposed to slow down coronavirus transmissions.
Local farmers said if the situation does not improve they will have to count huge financial losses in this season.
Mango is the main cash crop of Chapainawabganj. Hundreds of delicious varieties of mangoes, including Gopalbhog, Khirsapat, Langra and Fazli are produced in the district.
Mangoes produced here are supplied to different parts of the country alongside meeting the local demand and are also exported to other countries. Mango harvesting will start in mid-May.
This time, there is no smile on the faces of mango growers and traders in the region because of the corona situation, said mango growers.
They said this season the yield is not as good as previous years. In the beginning of the season, there were huge buds in mango orchards, but later that declined due to unfavourable weather, the added.
According to growers, they could not take proper care of their gardens due to the coronavirus situation and now they are worried about the marketing of the seasonal fruit amid suspension of transport and restrictions on free movement of people.
“Normally, seasonal fruit traders come to buy mango orchards . But this time, there is no orchard buyer due to the corona restrictions. In such a condition, we're fearing of huge losses,” said Ohid Ali, a mango grower of the district.
Another mango grower, Abdur Rakib, of Arambagh area, said, “The quantity of mangoes this year is much poor than the last year's. No wholesale trader visited our orchards. If they don’t come, how we'll sell our mangoes!”
According to the Department of Agriculture Extension (DAE), this year mangoes were cultivated on 33,035 hectares of land in the district with a target of producing 2.50 lakh metric tonnes.
Nazrul Islam, Deputy Director of the DAE, said mango growers are now passing days amid serious anxieties due to the coronavirus restrictions.
“Anyway, there's no reason to worry about. Initiatives will be taken from the administration so that mango-laden trucks could move to different areas across the country,” he said.
Nazrul Islam said it will take 20-25 days for the mangoes to hit the market. And by then, Ramadan will be over. "After the Ramadan, there'll be no problem in marketing mangoes with the improvement in the corona situation," he hoped.
The government has undertaken a number of projects for the infrastructural development of the Haor regions, alongside better flood management with the aim of improving living standards for the inhabitants.
The projects have been designed to also balance some of the risk that the farming community faces in the haors, where an entire season’s crop can often be destroyed in days due to its vulnerability to phenomena such as flash flooding.
One of the smaller projects by allocation is titled 'Haor area agricultural development project', involving Tk 28 crore through the Department of Agricultural Extension.
According to an official document, a 70-kilometre approach road will be built to allow farmers to transport the crop after each harvest to safe storage facilities under this project.
Besides, for Sunamganj and other districts where haors proliferate, there are two projects under Local Government Engineering Department aiming to develop the rural infrastructure.
These two projects are-- ‘Infrastructural and life standard development of Haor area’ and ‘Flood management and life standard development of Haor area’ .
The haors of Bangladesh, found mainly in Sylhet and Mymensingh, are unique wetland ecosystems that during the monsoon resemble vast inland seas.
Roads including community roads development, irrigation infrastructure development, Beel development, village defence activities, model village development, Haat development, landing ghaat development and income enhancing training are included in these two projects.
The government has already completed feasibility studies for constructing roads and bridges in haor areas, according to the document compiling all the projects aimed at the haors.
Project  has been undertaken to protect Boro rice and uplift the living standards of people through agricultural activities in 29 haors of Kishoreganj, Mymensingh, Netrokona, Habiganj, Brahmanbaria and Sunamganj.
There will be re-excavation of 461 kilometres of rivers and canals, 263 kilometres of submergible dam construction, redesign of 87 kilometres of submergible dams and redesigning of 84 kilometres of dams with full height under this project.
"The navigability will be increased through re-excavation of the rivers and canals and harvested crops will be carried through the river channels," the document stated.
It is also mentioned that in the course of the current fiscal (2019-20) the government plans to repair 634 kilometres of submergible dams in 11 upazilas of Sunamganj district. The estimated cost of this project is Tk 133.22 crore.
The government has taken up an initiative to construct 90 causeways - 85 in Sunamganj and five in Habigan - under yet another project for the haor regions, titled 'Causeway construction in haor areas for developing water drainage system and convenience of shipping'.
A causeway is a track, road or railway on the upper point of an embankment across "a low, or wet place, or piece of water."
Currently the project worth Tk 500.95 crore is awaiting approval from the ECNEC. In conjunction with some of the projects mentioned above, once implemented it is meant to benefit the farmers in transporting their crops during the monsoon.
Besides, there is a plan to construct 20 threshing and drying floors and 40 sheds (two each beside every threshing and drying floor) beside the dam of this project for convenience of paddy threshing and drying.
The global crisis created by the COVID-19 pandemic has already impacted almost all the employment sectors in the world, including the entertainment industry. The holidays around Eid are the most lucrative periods for almost any industry in this Muslim-majority nation, and this tends to be even more pronounced in the entertainment sphere, especially for the film industry.
Due to the COVID-19, the government in Bangladesh shut down many institutional activities soon after the confirmation of local transmission, and prevent the virus from spreading - in ripe environments like the cinema halls. From March 18, all the cinema halls and cineplexes were shut down due to the pandemic, according to Bangladesh Film Producers-Distributors Association President Khorshed Alam Khosru.
“As the virus passes from human to human in close proximity, people inside crowded arenas such as cinema halls are at a higher risk to be contaminated with the virus - so we decided not to continue the shows in any of the halls, including the cineplexes, from March 18 until further notice,” Khosru told UNB.
Regarding the movies being showcased prior to the ban, Shakib Khan’s movie ‘Shahenshah’ was the only one significant release that came out on March 6, and was running at over 100 halls before the closing. Release of some much-awaited movies were put in halt such as noted director Masud Hasan Ujjal directed film ‘Unoponchash Batash’, that was set to release on March 13; and Chayanika Chowdhury-directed ‘Bishwoshundori’ on March 27.
Before the crisis emerged, movie lovers and hall owners were counting days for Shakib’s upcoming movie ‘Bidrohi’ and ‘Nabab LLB’, Arifin Shuvoo starring action extravaganza ‘Mission Extreme’, Siam Ahmed starring action film ‘SHAAN’, Ananta Jalil’s Bangladesh-Iran joint venture ‘Deen - The Day’, Tollywood star Dev starring Bangladeshi spy thriller film ‘Commando’, and many more – for the Eid-Ul-Fitr releases, which they expected to make up for the losses in the meantime, during part of February, and certainly March and April.
With the expected Eid releases now practically impossible for the moviemakers.
“We have postponed our activities and thinking about rescheduling the release of our film which was set to be released on the occasion of Holy Eid-Ul-Fitr”, Faisal Ahmed, director of Arifin Shuvoo and Miss World Bangladesh pageant winning Jannatul Ferdouse Oishee starring-Mission Extreme, told UNB.
Explaining his opinion on given circumstances, Faisal continued “We haven’t finalized anything yet, however at this moment everyone is focusing on being safe and sound from the Coronavirus. People will not be marching to the cinema halls in the foreseeable future even if the pandemic ends in the shortest possible time, and this is, in fact, the case scenario around the whole world.”
Regarding the solution, Faisal emphasized on the fact that the government must take necessary steps to save the cinema industry as the artists-entertainers and production crews are being financially devastated in this pandemic.
In order to solve the crisis, actor and Bangladesh Cholochitro Shilpi Samiti President Misha Shawdagor has recently said the association, along with other governing bodies in the industry, are planning to address the crisis that has visited upon them ‘comprehensively’, for which they are starting their assessment and inviting applications for funds according to some criteria.
Although funding will be requested from the government, the chances of being prioritised for such funds may not be very high, coming off a pandemic. As things stand now, despite efforts coming in from all corners, the government is yet to even accommodate the film industry in a meeting. Relief may be a bridge too far ahead to contemplate.