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The coronavirus pandemic has exposed tears and fault lines in Bangladesh’s social fabric, economy, and public health sector. One of the world’s most densely populated countries, with a headcount of over 160 million, Bangladesh has been under a nationwide lockdown since March 26 to contain the spread of the virus. As of May 20, the country has reported 26,738 confirmed cases and 370 related deaths.

The lockdown has been hard to implement in parts of the country, especially in congested places like Cox’s Bazar, the origin of the nation’s outbreak and home to one of the largest Rohingya refugee camps in South Asia. For vulnerable communities across the country, social distancing is difficult if not impossible. The lack of urban planning and the prevalence of slums exacerbate hygiene and sanitation risks, accelerating community transmission and further amplifying socioeconomic divides.

Rhea Menon
Rhea Menon is a senior communications coordinator and research assistant at Carnegie India.

Bangladesh’s booming economy has been largely driven by its thriving garment trade and other export-oriented industries. The drop in global demand for garments and textiles caused a huge economic shock that has compounded the effects of the national lockdown and put over 2 million jobs at risk. The pandemic has also affected the unskilled, informal sector, which contributes roughly 65 percent of the country’s GDP. While the government has been unveiling various economic stimulus packages, the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic has proved detrimental on its own.

Inadequacies in Bangladesh’s healthcare system have created other hurdles. As of May 18, the country had only forty-two testing laboratories, but the government is racing to set up more. Shortages of testing kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), and intensive care unit beds have greatly strained the country’s limited public and private healthcare systems. A UN situation report noted that Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Health Services “secured 364,000 PPE sets, most of which were distributed to government hospitals” and had only 42,8770 sets left as of April 5.

The Bangladeshi diaspora and multilateral and regional organizations have been instrumental in raising funds and providing economic and medical assistance. But if the lockdown is sustained and the pandemic continues to spread across the country, the effects on Bangladesh’s economy and social fabric could be catastrophic.

Rhea Menon is a senior communications coordinator and research assistant at Carnegie India.


Interview with Shahab E. Khan, Research Director at the Bangladesh Enterprise Institute and senior faculty in the Department of International Relations at Jahangirnagar University

How does Bangladesh perceive the role of international institutions in combating this pandemic?

The coronavirus pandemic has exposed a void in the global public health system. Bangladesh recognizes the important ways that regional and multilateral organizations are seeking to address the inadequacies and gaps and appropriately tackle the pandemic. Given its limited resources and capacity constraints, Bangladesh is largely dependent on international institutions for technical assistance. It is an active member of regional organizations like the Bay of Bengal Initiative for Multi-Sectoral Technical and Economic Cooperation, which provides a bridge between South and Southeast Asia and already has a mandate for public health.

While contributions of international aid to Bangladesh’s economy have fallen, the international community plays a crucial role in boosting trade, investment, and security. The country receives substantial financial support from the World Bank and other development partners and continues to work closely with the UN on various regional and international agendas. It also prioritizes multilateral institutions aiming to advance peace, stability, and poverty eradication.

The pandemic provides an opportunity to build faith in international institutions, especially among developing nations whose domestic priorities have come to the forefront. Bangladesh is keen to collaborate with international organizations, particularly on the postpandemic rehabilitation and repatriation of Rohingya refugees.

Given that South Asia is the most densely populated region in the world, what are the opportunities and challenges for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) amid this pandemic?

While SAARC has been functional for the last few decades, it has traditionally focused on standard security issues. Such national security concerns, many of which stem from the presence of two nuclear powers in the region, need to give way to a broader, more pragmatic approach. First, given that over 70 percent of South Asians work in the informal sector and that poverty levels can run high, SAARC should devote more attention to common economic governance. Second, and more importantly, SAARC needs to amend its charter to allow bilateral talks among members and strengthen its mandate to rehabilitate the organization. The establishment of SAARC’s coronavirus development fund is a positive sign, especially as South Asian nations need to pool their resources for healthcare, governance, and energy to curb the spread of the pandemic.

In the last decade, Bangladesh has emerged as a leading hub of the global garment industry. What are the implications of the coronavirus on the country’s export-driven economy?

Bangladesh’s success as a top global player in the garment industry has led to a related problem: lack of economic diversification. In the last month alone, Bangladesh has lost over $3 billion worth of exports. As global demand for clothing and textiles declines, the government’s stimulus package included roughly $600 million in funding to support the garment sector and other export-oriented industries. The country’s total allotted financial relief packages amount to almost 2.5 percent of GDP, yet the poverty rate has gone up. A crucial question now is when to lift the lockdown, as citizens’ limited access to food, cash, essential services, and healthcare adds to social strife.

China has been a crucial investor in key infrastructure projects in Bangladesh. Has the pandemic impacted local perceptions of China and its investments?

Bangladesh and China share a critical economic relationship. India’s proposed changes in its foreign direct investment policy, focused on China, will also impact its existing policies toward Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Pakistan. Hence, Bangladesh may seek to rebalance its economic ties with China, a trade relationship that could still have positive spillover effects for India.

Trade financing, trade facilitation, and investment are key to sustaining the Bangladeshi economy of more than 160 million people—needs that can be met in part through Chinese economic interests. China not only has been a crucial economic partner but also has provided Bangladesh with technology, soft grants, and development assistance. China was also one of the first foreign nations to provide medical assistance and equipment to Bangladesh during the coronavirus pandemic, including aid for the Rohingya refugee population.

How can Bangladesh minimize the impact of the pandemic on Rohingya refugees, migrant workers, and those engaged in the informal sector?

Since Bangladesh’s lockdown began, closures of schools, universities, and small- and medium-sized businesses—combined with limited transportation options—have increased social stratification, as only certain segments of the urban population have been able to adhere to lockdown measures. Many migrant workers, Rohingya refugees, and others in the informal sector have potentially exposed themselves to the virus while seeking work or essential goods. Without strong preventive measures, Rohingya refugee camps could face particularly devastating outbreaks.

The coronavirus pandemic has put a major strain on Bangladesh’s public health system. As the virus continues to spread, the lack of medical equipment and testing facilities is becoming more apparent, and vulnerable populations have been most often marginalized. Moves in recent years to privatize the country’s public health system have exacerbated the challenges of accessing care, giving rise to a larger, even more pressing policy debate during the pandemic.