It is worrying that a UN position report has found that Bangladesh has the fewest social protection initiatives in the Asia Pacific region. The report assessed the measures adopted by governments in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. At a time when weeks of lockdown has led to large scale unemployment of people from low income groups, the government must take immediate measures to mitigate the effects of job losses. Already, there are reports of people going hungry and resorting to begging after their source of income has disappeared. The government’s stimulus packages aimed at reducing the economic fallout of the crisis are yet to reach many of these vulnerable groups.
Social protection, according to the report, includes unemployment protection, preventing job losses, supporting those who lost their jobs, ensuring income security during sick leave, benefits for the elderly and disabled, measures to boost affordable healthcare, providing income support through social assistance and cash transfers, among others.
The reality of Bangladesh is that even before the pandemic, such social protection has been negligible at best and non-existent at worst, exposing the weaknesses in policymaking and implementation of social safety net programmes. These weaknesses are now glaringly apparent as more and more people are losing their income source and having to spend their days in extreme hardship.
The report assesses that 45 percent of Bangladesh’s population is vulnerable to falling into poverty, and garment factories are crucial for providing incomes to the “near poor”. Many smaller garment factories are closing down due to the pandemic, resulting in job losses. Most of these garment workers are women.
The report has warned against targeted social protection schemes which require recipients to meet various criteria that may make them more prone to corruption. We have already seen how some unscrupulous individuals have been involved in pilferage of relief food during this crisis.
The suggestion to register informal groups and bring them under formal mechanisms could be an effective way to ensure that the millions of individuals in the informal sector and those outside any formal coverage can also benefit from government relief. It is also crucial to monitor the stimulus packages to make sure that those who need it the most are benefitted. The government must review existing budgetary priorities and policies so that resources and schemes are directed to address the huge economic impact on the poor and vulnerable, both in the short and long term.