Bangladesh: Why a Pandemic is More Than a Threat to Global Health

Leoni Connah,
Lancaster University

Covid-19, known to the world as “Coronavirus” has caused an unprecedented crisis as it threatens human life, irrespective of location, age, gender or ethnicity. In addition to the threat the virus poses to health, the economic implications of Covid-19 are on a global scale as countries fear recession. The media has centred upon the economic implications of the UK and the U.S. but what is Covid-19 doing to South Asian states such as Bangladesh?

Covid-19                      

Since it was first identified in Wuhan (China) in December 2019, the virus has spread across the globe, infecting over 200 countries and becoming a pandemic. There are currently no medicines, vaccines or drugs that can treat/cure the disease. It has been over two months since the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Bangladesh and it has been spreading ever since. The most up to date reports suggest that there are over 44,000 confirmed Covid-19 cases in Bangladesh and more than 600 deaths. However, this is not an accurate representation as there is a shortage of testing equipment and the reports of deaths are dubious. Most tests were conducted in the capital of Dhaka and there is a severe lack of testing equipment. Therefore, the total number of confirmed cases and confirmed deaths is likely to be much higher.

It has been over two months since the first cases of Covid-19 were confirmed in Bangladesh and it has been spreading ever since.

Bangladesh Before the Virus

Bangladesh is only 57,000 square miles yet has a population of over 164 million people. A population of this magnitude covering a small area pushes them to live on top of each other, often in crammed, poor conditions. Extreme poverty plagues the country and leaves individuals with little choice but to continue to find work. This has resulted in a pervasive culture of corruption, criminality, forced labour and even human trafficking in Bangladesh. The refugee crisis is another problem that Bangladesh face as they provide camps for the Rohingya Muslims who fled Myanmar in 2017. All of these problems existed prior to the pandemic, but the global crisis has certainly left its most devastating impact on the clothing and garments industry.

The End of the Clothing Industry

Garment workers return from a workplace as factories reopened after the government has eased the restrictions amid concerns over the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, May 4, 2020. REUTERS/Mohammad Ponir Hossain

One of the main, if not the biggest consequence that the virus has had on Bangladesh is the destabilisation it has caused to the clothing industry. The clothing/textile business is “the number one industry in Bangladesh” and is responsible for 80% of the country’s exports. Businesses that are hugely popular in the UK such as Matalan, Zara, Gap, Primark, Next and H&M rely on the garment workers of Bangladesh for their products. Some supermarkets including Tesco, Marks & Spencer and Walmart in the U.S. also rely on Bangladesh for imports. As a result of the pandemic, the majority of factories across Bangladesh have closed. Some retailers have cancelled their orders completely, whereas others have agreed to honour existing orders. Primark has announced that they will assist factories to pay the wages of their staff but the reality of this money reaching the lower-ranking staff is questionable. According to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) over 900 million garments have either been cancelled or suspended and over 2.2 million workers have either lost their jobs completely or been sent home without pay.

What Does the Future Hold?

Although Bangladesh has a relatively sufficient healthcare system in comparison to other South Asian nations, the entire country has only 1,169 ventilators and intensive care beds. The majority of these beds are located in the capital. This means that there is one ventilator for every 93,000 people. Also, some hospitals are refusing to take any Covid-19 patients in at all. This suggests that if the cases continue to rise, Bangladesh will not be able to cope with the situation. Bangladesh are not the only country to suffer from economic strife, as thousands of other people in Cambodia, Sri Lanka and Myanmar have also lost their jobs and face uncertain futures. This could have a domino effect on the rest of the world who rely on garment workers to supply their stores. Unless these businesses are willing to support those at the bottom of the hierarchy, it could be years before the industry recovers and this will force them to close their outlets and potentially close the business completely. The silver lining of this could be that it will push companies to produce sustainable clothing that is eco-friendly, as opposed to mass production. But this could leave workers in places such as Bangladesh in a crueller situation. Finally, after recent reports that over 100,000 people attended a funeral in spite of the lockdown, it is unlikely that social distancing measures are going to be taken seriously in Bangladesh and the already dire situation is only going to get worse.

All statistics accurate as of 01/06/2020

Leoni Connah is a PhD candidate at Lancaster University, with a research focus on South Asia.

Further reading:

The Call for Papers for Global Discourse Volume 11 Issue 1: Understanding the Politics of Fear: COVID-19, Crises and Democracy can be found here

Follow Global Discourse on Twitter: @globaldiscourse

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