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When will the real silence speak?

  • Published at 08:33 pm May 13th, 2020
opinion rain covid food package stimulus
Photo: REUTERS

The economy exists for the people, not the other way around

The blessed silence is now under assault with two specific strains. The daily earners shout out the availability of their products and wares; the apparently less fortunate shout out their misfortune.

The “apparently” is used tongue-in-cheek and is based on the experience of many not-so-deserving lower and middle class exploiting the situation. Mojnu sells tea, small snacks, and cigarettes on the roadside and with the income can send his son to Stamford University.

There are rickshaw-pullers that earn in normal times up to Tk25,000. That’s more than graduate job holders earn. Yet, Mojnu and the rickshaw-pullers are now in distress. It’s inexplicable that they don’t have some savings and are immediately destitute but that is “apparently” the way it is. There are so many examples of people saying they’re in need versus those really in need and the difference is all blurred.

Otherwise, the insensible over-crowding of shops and malls wherever they’re open does raise questions about economic woes. Many are trying to move on with their lives with or without assistance, including changing their profession. Fish, vegetable, and poultry vendors that walk around communities or push their cycle-vans have either dipped into rainy-day savings, or loaned from friends and family or loan sharks to finance their wares.

The usual numbers that accost, yes they do that nowadays, in front of ATMs, superstores, banks, and these days, bazars and pharmacies, have become more demanding to the extent of being aggressive. It’s more of “why won’t you give” than “please help.”

The worry is that joining in with these are those that used to do some work jobs that have vanished. They too have been retrenched in a way, though the headlines are made by the better-off individuals that have been either sacked, haven’t been paid, or paid half of their salaries. Sadly, this includes front-line war-going physicians and health care providers. Private sector bonuses are also under threat.

If institutional organizations struggle to pay employees over a period of two months, it isn’t unusual that families are finding it impossible to retain domestic help and drivers. We hear of lofty suggestions ranging from immediate aid and more long-time measures for the economic wheels to begin running again.

Yet no one seems to have any answers to the unbridled unemployment that has silently been created. The government has announced making available close to $14 billion over the short, mid, and long term through a combination of food aid, cash, and shops for those hardest hit, as well as small and large businesses mostly at low interest.

Eyebrows have been raised at the difference in interest rates in favour of the garments sector over that of farmer loans. Nor is confidence inspired by the decision to overturn a previous one of denying loan defaulters from getting loans.

Throughout society in different trades and professions ranging from day labourer through small companies and businesses to those in arts and culture and many more, there are those that are hurting yet unable to seek help. Despite the existence of an NID database double-checked through cell phone re-registration of a few years ago, there isn’t a reliable list of the extremely vulnerable and vulnerable groups.

Five million families have been identified to receive a one-time aid grant of Tk2,500 and the budget is to cover another 9 million. With statistics fairly unreliable, there will be double counts and families falling through the cracks.

The strategy of unofficial lockdown seemed to be working initially in controlling the spread of the virus but was dealt a double whammy. Dithering indecision and callousness of the garments industry in recalling and then rescinding worker presence was one. The decision to open up markets is another. The number of infections has increased due to expansion of testing, and it would be wrong to connect this with the failure of the lockdown. It’s too early to call.

Small businesses and the middle class are key in reviving economic activities, and for all the stimulus packages, it will be that and the money in the black economy that will have to come to the fore if we are to survive.

At the same time, the focus on saving lives cannot shift. The economy exists for people, not the other way round. The romantics are painting pictures of a new world order that will shed itself of inequality and social injustice. That can only happen if governments take more painful decisions on top of current ones.

Generally, expectations are of a return to the world we were in, albeit with some changes to lifestyle, employment, and societies. Experts and businesses speak of technical skills, AI, and consolidation as the new requirements and norms.

All very well, except that everyone is overlooking the obvious loss of jobs. The limitations of labour intensive professions such as farming have been exposed. That’s food for thought in the future, because the real silence of the marginals will then speak.