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Coronavirus: ‘The poor and the vulnerable are bearing the brunt of this crisis’

  • Published at 03:29 pm April 8th, 2020
low income people-poverty-relief-coronavirus-RAJIB DHAR
Many of the underprivileged and homeless in Dhaka has been entirely reliant on aid and charity to survive during the lockdown as most of them have lost their source of income Rajib Dhar/Dhaka Tribune

The coronavirus pandemic has brought the global economy to its knees in less than three months. In Bangladesh, it’s a catch 22 for the poor – who will either go hungry if they do not work or be susceptible to infection if they do. In order to help policy makers understand the short and long term effects of the crisis, Executive Director of BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) Imran Matin speaks to Dhaka Tribune's  Syed Samiul Basher Anik about their recently launched Rapid Research Response to Covid-19

Briefly explain why Rapid Research Response to Covid-19 is necessary to understand the economic impact of the crisis  

Covid-19 is an unprecedented global crisis. Even though the virus has not yet affected Bangladesh at a large scale, at least until now, we are at risk, given our population density and the exponential nature of the spread of the virus. Social distancing has proven to be the most effective measure to curb the spread. But we find many people are not practicing social distancing, and this very measure of social distancing is hurting the economy immensely, especially the poor relying on daily wages - giving rise to all sorts of social problem such as domestic abuse.

Moreover, the poor and vulnerable people in the country are bearing the brunt of this crisis. The urban poor are suddenly finding a drastic reduction in their customer base or losing their jobs. They are also the ones disproportionately exposed to the virus either because they are at the frontline of providing the essential services or because they have to go out to feed their families. The rural economy is already struggling with the fall in the prices of agricultural commodities and hikes in the cost of commercial transportation; we know that marginal and poor farmers are usually the hardest hit in these situations.

The interests and rights of the poor and vulnerable people is the most important agenda of BIGD’s research. We believe, in this unforeseen national crisis, our rapid research can provide useful and credible insights to policymakers as well as practitioners such as Brac on how to address the Covid-19 crisis while minimizing its socio-economic impact.

What will be the focus of this research?

BIGD as a research institution is committed to doing policy responsive research to improve development and governance processes and the newly launched Rapid Response Research initiative focuses on two key areas-immediate needs and support for those who are most affected, and rehabilitation support needed for the micro and small enterprises. 

We are focusing on the socio-economic dimension of the crisis and want to add value by leveraging our field research capabilities and portfolio of large scale surveys to conduct rapid phone surveys and in-depth interviews to provide rapid insights on the evolving socio-economic dynamics for a wide range of policy and practice stakeholders involved in fighting the crisis.

We have already started a number of studies on the direct impact of social isolation on the lives of the people in partnership with Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC). 

We hope to provide some meaningful insights on this with practical policy suggestions within the next few weeks. But we also anticipate that the resultant socioeconomic crisis of Covid-19 will continue even after the virus has subsided. 

So, after we have come up with some useful findings from our immediate research, we will focus on the medium-term impact of the crisis and possible solutions. We will continue tracking the socio-economic vulnerabilities of different groups of people to understand how the situation is evolving, and how the government and other stakeholders are responding to address the longer-term impact of the crisis.

What socio-economic aspects in particular are you focusing on?

At BIGD, we believe in the power of collaboration, particularly in these difficult times. We cannot do much and achieve very little without taking partnership very seriously during this crisis. This is both because of the nature of the crisis but also because we need a diversity of ideas and perspectives to be useful when things are so fast evolving.

Along with our partnership with PPRC on livelihoods, coping and needs rapid survey and monitoring strand we are also partnering with Policy Research Institute (PRI) to assess and monitor the effect on the micro and small enterprise sector. 

With the Centre for Critical Qualitative Studies (CQS) at ULAB and Dr Shahaduzzaman at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, we are doing rapid anthropological work to get a more nuanced understanding of the current messaging and information seeking behaviour of different types of people. 

We are designing rapid community case studies to understand community dynamics and relationships across different actors during this time period in partnership with Dr Naomi Hossain at the American University in Washington DC. 

We are designing another rapid survey to look at the time use pattern of school children and mothers in partnership with Dr Niaz Asadullah at Malaya University to understand the effect on children’s learning, which is likely to be another big crisis. 

In short, we are sweating all our assets and relationships and making new connections to do whatever we can to be relevant and add value as a member of the larger knowledge community at this critical time of national need.

How are you gauging the economic impact on the rural and urban poor?

Our Rapid Research Response Initiative has many strands of research. I want to highlight the ones that have immediate relevance.

The most important strand is understanding the economic vulnerabilities. In this research, we are conducting phone surveys with the rural poor and non-poor households and urban slum households. Through this survey, we hope to learn about what kind of economic shocks they are facing—income loss, high price and availability of essentials, for example; how they are coping with the crisis and what are their worries and concerns; and finally what kind of support they are getting, if any, and what they need. We will also try to suggest possible delivery mechanisms that may be efficient in the emergency situation.

Using phone surveys, we are also trying to understand how our micro, small, and medium enterprises are dealing with the crisis, how it is affecting their business, and what they need to survive. Their survival is important because micro and small enterprises are our economic lifeline, a major employer of the poor and vulnerable people.

We are also interested in the impact of the crisis on the financial lives of the people. Hit by the crisis, if a large number of people are unable to repay their loan and become indebted for example, it will have a long-term impact on poverty as well as on the microfinance sector. 

Another important strand of our rapid research is monitoring the deal that the garments workers are getting in the face of the slow-down of the RMG sector. Already an estimated million workers have lost their jobs or have been suspended. 

On the immediate social research front, we want to understand the underlying reasons why some people do not or cannot stay at home. I already discussed that for many, it is a choice between whether to feed or starve their families. We need to understand who these people are and what does it takes to keep them home. But there may be other social and cultural reasons as well. We need to understand these reasons very well in order to come up with effective strategies for compliance.

How will this research finding help in effective policy making and implementation of good governance during and post Sars-Cov 2 pandemic?  

Policies and programs can always benefit from solid research insights. This is especially true for this time. We have not experienced anything like this in the history of Bangladesh; we have not dealt with a deadly virus while experiencing a widespread economic hardship. This is new to us. In this uncertain situation, research becomes even more important in making policies and taking strategies. And we need to act fast, hence the need for rapid research.

For example, we hope that our research on socio-economic vulnerabilities will be valuable in designing targeted support programs for different demographic and occupational groups. Our tracking exercise will shed light on whether some groups are systematically deprived from the support they need, and thus making a strong case for targeting those groups. Our research on the financial health of the poor can serve as an early warning for the Micro-Finance Institutes (MFIs), based on these findings MFIs can take pre-emptive strategies to avert possible adverse impact.

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