This is a time to tighten our belts and focus on the ground realities
To say that governments were found wanting by the pandemic would be an understatement. They were caught with their pants down. Emerging from the morass of denial, tardy responses, and an unwillingness to listen to the specialists about the spectacle of horrendous body counts, people struggling for their lives on ventilators and alarming increases in infections of health providers shook administrators out of whatever reveries they had been in.
The experts continue to argue about how best to face up to it, causing most countries to fall back on lockdowns and social distancing to only slow the spread of a contagion that has, as of now, no cure.
The lack of preparedness has led to a state of chaos. Caught between a rock and a hard place, politicians were at odds with economists and health experts as to the best way forward in addressing the two sticking points of the crisis.
Neither of the two sectors has provided any mutually supporting ideas. For all the international agencies built up through the years to assist the differently dependent economies of the world in enhancing capacity and wherewithal, the abject failure of health systems has been rudely exposed.
Debt and investment were the main preoccupations of the world. How the tune has changed. Now everyone agrees that indebtedness is required to restart the global economy that has ground to a shuddering halt. Trillions of dollars are now emerging almost by magic for stimulus in countries that only a few months ago were said to be bankrupt.
For nine long years, the Conservative government in the UK pushed through austerity measures to reduce debt cutting the essential investments required for health services, education, and social security. Italy was castigated by the European Union for declaring budgets that infringed on the percentage of debt versus GDP.
And there are more such examples. Even before the pandemic, the world was heading for a recession. In Bangladesh, all indicators barring remittances were headed south. Even so, the international think tanks were suspicious of any expenses, even infrastructure investments. The same bodies now don’t flinch at the prospect of world debt hitting a whopping $66 trillion.
Economists around the world are calling for immediate succour for daily wage earners and support for small businesses. They do so on the basis of knowing that health expenditure will naturally rise and budgets found.
Unfortunately, such realizations have come after a profound cost. The lives lost and the potential of more deaths hang like a sceptre over an increasingly fearful global population. Worldwide, governments would like us to believe lives are important. Given the nonchalance with which hunger is allowed to spread, and deaths described as collateral damage, it’s a belief hard to accept.
It is also at odds with heartbroken health care professionals faced with the choice of deciding who lives or dies as they grappled with equipment shortages and the need for treating the sick.
Bangladesh has been no different. On the contrary, citizens are in a quandary over whether any treatment, let alone for Covid-19, is available anymore.
Health care providers are scared for their own health in the absence or shortage of protective equipment. Most have expressed helplessness at being asked to attend to patients without the facilities.
Indecisiveness, lack of coordination, and a general flaunting of directives has created a mess. The lockdowns have become almost ineffective and social distancing has gone for a toss. Given the density of population and the general lifestyle, that doesn’t come as a surprise. Social media and mainstream media are making much disapprobation, but few are fully gauging the desperation in the bulk of the population that live from day to day or a month or two at best.
The government’s decision to prepare lists of daily earners and provide food aid is already being compromised by reports of cronyism and outright theft. The more dangerous prospect of the silent middle class being demoted by circumstances wasn’t taken into account. These are families that are in want with no one to turn to partly out of pride and embarrassment, partly by not having relevant platforms.
Up till now, some $9 billion has been earmarked for stimulus, support, and aid. More will be required. The finance minister is on a desperate mission seeking support from the development partners, but in a strange new world there are no guarantees. Austerity has to be the way forward.
That and trimming of the Annual Development Plan so as to fund only essential projects and postponing others is the only way forward. Kick-starting the economy will require innovative thinking. The RMG sector is unlikely to find its way in the near future, given the grim statistics that clothing purchases declined by 34% in the UK and 38% in the US.
In the midst of all this, the rumours of another ambitious budget larger than the current fiscal’s are cause for concern. Apparently, the deficit will be more than the standard 5%. With revenues in unchartered territory, it really is a time for wise heads to get together, tighten their belts, and focus on ground realities in the immediate future and the coming years.
Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.