Bangladesh has been fighting both a health and economic crisis. Image: REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain
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- Ensuring food security in case of a prolonged crisis will be a big challenge for South Asian countries.
- Poverty and inequality within and among societies will increase rapidly as a result of COVID-19.
- We need a global compact to share global responsibilities.
The world is facing a battle against an unknown and invisible enemy. This enemy does not respect any border or hierarchy and unfortunately has exposed the fragilities in our systems.
Over the last five weeks, Bangladesh, like most countries in the world, has been fighting a dual crisis. On the health front, we mobilized enough testing kits – gloves, masks, PPE. Some of our entrepreneurs have even started producing these locally. We are also in the process of making ventilators locally. Our private sector is supporting the government by setting up thousands of hospital beds. Our doctors, nurses, health workers, defence and law enforcement personnel are working in the front line. With a large informal economy and dense population, we initially wanted to shut down only affected areas and districts. But on April 16, we went for even more stringent measures.
This has had a telling impact on our economy, which is also unfolding fast. In Bangladesh, we realized very quickly that this crisis is going to cause both a demand and supply shock for our economy. We have to sustain export industries and also support domestic ones. I have already announced an $11.25 billion package for various sectors of our economy, including the support measures for different segments of the population of our society. The primary focus of this stimulus package is domestic and export-oriented manufacturing and services sectors, including small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and extended social safety net facilities and support for agriculture. This support package is equivalent to 3.3% of our GDP.
Thanks to pragmatic policies and the great efforts of our farmers, we have sufficient food, but ensuring food security in case of a prolonged crisis will be a big challenge for all, especially for the South Asian countries. Our agriculture sector employs the highest number of our informal workers and it has been adversely affected due to huge disruption of supply chains all over the country. Around $3 billion have been allocated exclusively for agriculture under our recently announced stimulus package. We are also going for direct cash transfer to 10 million poor and marginal households, which will result in supporting almost 50 million people.
As the world tackles such a complex scenario, we will need a new kind of approach: an approach that fosters cooperation and not isolation amongst all stakeholders. This is an approach that we have been following in Bangladesh since 1972, when our “Father of the Nation”, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, declared that Bangladesh will pursue a policy of friendship towards all and malice towards none.
In that context, I believe the following five steps will help us move in that direction.
1. We need new thinking on how to tackle inequality
Poverty and inequality within and among societies will increase rapidly. In the last decade, we lifted half of our poor out of poverty. Many of them will now slide back. People risk falling into debt traps. 85% of our people work in the informal sector. Our SMEs are badly hit. The situation is not different in other parts of South Asia or even Africa. So, the world will need new thinking on human wellbeing, how to tackle inequality, support the poor, and get our economies back to pre-COVID levels.
2. We need robust global leadership from G7, G20 and OECD
A multilateral system led by the United Nations should step forward. I must commend Professor Klaus Schwab and the World Economic Forum for identifying “infectious diseases” as a key risk in the Global Risks Report 2020. It highlighted rightfully the fragilities in the health sector globally. So, the Forum’s COVID Action Platform and the Regional Action Groups are a step in the right direction. In addition, I also believe that in partnership with other key institutions such as the United Nations, efforts should be taken to chalk out a post COVID-19 exit strategy.
3. We need to devise strategies to adapt to new business norms
We are already witnessing transformation in global business, work and manufacturing. In post-COVID times, new norms, standards and practices will emerge. We already see that many global brands within supply chains are not acting responsibly. This I believe is a test for stakeholder capitalism and we therefore need to devise strategies and pragmatic measures so that countries like Bangladesh can adapt.
4. We need a global compact to share responsibilities
Migrant workers are frontline contributors to societies and economies in richer countries. However, they are suddenly finding themselves in very difficult situations, including joblessness. That is also risking South Asian economies. So, we need a meaningful global compact to share burdens and responsibilities. In the Bangladesh context, we have not run away from our responsibilities. As you may be aware, we host the largest refugee camp in the world, and we have included the nearly 1.1 million Rohingya refugees in our overall COVID-19 strategy.
5. 4IR technologies can help us prepare for the future
For one decade, through our innovative A2i programme, Bangladesh is championing the digitization of our economy. During this pandemic, we have effectively used some of the digital tools and technologies, like Artificial Intelligence and mobile phones to trace infections. To better prepare for the future, we can fast develop innovative solutions, especially in health, education, agriculture and supply chains. Utilizing Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies will be important and one where an institution like the World Economic Forum can take on an active role.
What is the World Economic Forum doing about the coronavirus outbreak?
We are already battling climate change. Now, a common enemy – coronavirus – is challenging our existence. COVID-19 is an existential crisis and insular attitudes anywhere will not work. We will need an approach of collective responsibility and partnership from every society.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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