The first case of COVID-19 in Bangladesh was detected on Mar 8, 2020. By that time, preparations were well underway for the grand inaugural ceremony of Mujib Barsha. An emergency meeting was called at the Ganabhaban on that very day, where Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in the presence of her younger sister Sheikh Rehana, clearly stated, "Bangabandhu dedicated his entire life for the people. We cannot, in good conscience, allow any events in his honour where his people would be put even at a minimum of risk."
And so, with severe limitations imposed on Mujib Barsha celebrations, the prime minister started what would be the beginning of her relentless and ongoing fight on behalf of Bangladesh against COVID-19. The immediate challenges were twofold: containment of the virus and treatment.
To contain the virus and ensure social (physical) distancing, the government announced a general holiday, shut down airports, imposed restrictions on the road, rail and water transports as well as deployed massive administrative, law enforcement and security personnel to enforce the decisions.
The prime minister conducted a series of video conferences with district health and administrative officials to get a snapshot of what was required at the grassroots level. These recommendations were taken into account as the government started rectifying the shortcomings in the existing health policies, infrastructure, and manpower. Relevant plans, strategies, and protocols were put in place with the help of the technical advisory and public health specialists' committees.
How Bangladesh fared in the months ahead is clear from the recent rankings of countries in terms of their COVID resilience (Bloomberg, Dec 2020). The country was ranked as one of the top 20 countries in terms of performance. Bangladesh performed well in many of the indicators, with 34 cases per 100,000, a mortality rate of 1.6%, 44 deaths per million and a test positivity rate of 10.2% in November, all at the lower sides.
In a record time, the government recruited 2,000 doctors and 5,000 nurses to ensure treatment of patients, especial those infected with the coronavirus. From just one laboratory for testing coronavirus, the country now has 167 laboratories. From a mere few tests per day, the capacity was increased to the range of 15,000-20,000 a day. As of Dec 30, more than 3.2 million tests have been conducted. Starting from only one hospital for the COVID-19 patients, the country now has 10,525 general beds and 582 ICU beds dedicated for them. More than 663,292 patients have received treatment for COVID-19 via the government's telemedicine services alone.
The government showed zero tolerance towards those who engaged in corruption in the health sector, with several high profile arrests and prosecutions. Underperforming officials were penalised. At the onset of the crisis, and amidst some shortages of personal protective equipment (PPEs) for health professionals, within weeks not only was the government able to adequately provide all frontline workers with PPEs, but by September, the country was able to earn more than $500 million by exporting PPEs to 71 countries!
During the holidays, the government was faced with the mammoth task of conducting one of the largest humanitarian relief operations in the country's history. Food relief and cash handouts were distributed to a total of 35.4 million people by the government. Additionally, the Awami League with its own resources provided cash support worth more than Tk 100 million and food support to 12.5 million people, spurred on by their leader's clarion call to action.
When the shutdown was relaxed on Jun 1 and the country was opened for business on a limited scale, there were some who criticised Sheikh Hasina. They were egging the government for a prolonged lockdown without showing any evidence that an extension was, indeed, a viable solution, or, at the very least, in the public interest.
However, the prime minister was convinced that if the economic wheels remain grounded for any longer, the country would face a disaster from which it may not be able to recover easily. In the months ahead, her position would be vindicated. Compared to neighbouring countries and those with similar socio-economic situations, Bangladesh did much well economically, as was highlighted by the HSBC in July 2020. In fact, the country's economy is expected to treble in size and become the 25th largest one in the world from the current 41st by 2030 (CEBR, Dec 2020).
Bangladesh has bad memories of hunger and famines. But things have changed for the better in the last decade. We are now self-sufficient in food production, being third in the world for rice production. Coincidentally, we are also the global third for production of both inland fish and vegetable.
Under the direct leadership of Hasina, special measures were adopted to ensure that agricultural output continued seamlessly even during the mandatory holidays. As a result, the country faced no shortages of food grains and other essential produce. When the farmers faced shortages of temporary labourers during harvest, her call for volunteers was answered by her political followers from Chhatra League and Krishak League. The administration made special arrangements for the movement of farming labourers between, and within, districts and Upazilas.
There was a time in Bangladesh, when a catastrophe such as the prevalent COVID crisis, would certainly have led to deaths from hunger. However, a number of factors, all directly linked to Sheikh Hasina's governance, ensured that any such potential disaster was averted. These include the immediate relief in the form of cash and food support, as well as the long term resilience developed in the last decade by a massive reduction in poverty and a powerful social safety net regime. In the last 10 years, more than 80 million people have graduated out of poverty. The budget allocation for the existing 145 social safety net schemes ($11 billion in 2019-20 FY) has seen a 28.5% rise for 2020-21 FY.
The country's government could have come to a standstill due to the physical distancing requirements. But the PM's steps to build a 'Digital Bangladesh' avoided that situation. Citizens could access over 200 government services online from home. As many as 168 million mobile connections and 110 million internet connections enabled meetings in conference halls and boardrooms to be replaced with Zoom, Skype, and Google Meeting. The government's dedicated website and app for coronavirus enabled citizens to keep abreast of all relevant updates real-time.
Governance and businesses could sustain themselves as a result. Financial inclusion measures such as mobile financial services enabled e-commerce and f-commerce to thrive during the shutdowns. For instance, in July alone, the total amount of transactions via mobile transactions crossed $70 million. Between July and September, online sales increased by 70–80% and generated $708.46 million in revenues.
Since the start of the COVID-19 crisis, the PM announced a total of 21 stimulus packages worth Tk 1.21 trillion. Until October, 39.23% of the amount or Tk 476.15 billion was disbursed. A total of 7.6 million firms, organisations, entrepreneurs, and other beneficiaries got loan facilities under the schemes. Despite the multifaceted workload, the PM was long and hard at work every single day in May and June to present one of the most crucial of national budgets. The Tk 5.68 trillion annual budget was passed on Jun 30, with special emphasis on pandemic-related recovery initiatives.
The fact that the stimulus packages, the customised budget and the timely withdrawal of general holidays worked is apparent from the state of the economy's macroeconomic indicators. Bangladesh achieved more than 5% of economic growth in 2019-2020 FY, while neighbouring countries, as well as many developed ones, witnessed negative growth. Other economic indicators have also shown promising signs. Our foreign exchange reserves have passed the $43 billion threshold for the first time before the end of the year.
By the end of the second week of December, the remittances received during 2020 crossed the $20 billion threshold, which is 12% higher than the remittances received during the entire period of 2019. This is in large part due to the continuance of the government's 2% cash incentive support for remittances as well as focused and expeditious diplomatic efforts to minimise the loss from the joblessness and return of migrant workers.
The PM announced a fund of Tk 20 billion to rehabilitate the returnees as well as another allocation of Tk 5 billion as soft loans. Another cash support project, funded by the World Bank, worth Tk 4.25 billion is also under process.
In the first five months of the current FY, the country earned $15.8 billion from exports, up 0.9% year on year. COVID-19 severely affected exports during the second half of the last fiscal year. Nonetheless, Bangladesh managed to bounce back soon to earn a total of $33.67 billion from exports in the 2019-2020 FY. Although this represented a reduction from the $40.5 billion earned in 2018-19 FY, the positive growth in the first five months of the current FY shows what a stunning comeback the country has managed.
The stimulus packages announced by the prime minister, among others, has to be credited for this trend. Her government disbursed a total of Tk 105 billion as interest-free loans in two phases with a service charge of only 2% for providing salaries to workers and employees of 1,992 export-oriented industrial units for four months. The full amount of the stimulus was disbursed by June and the support in the form of salaries helped save jobs of at least 5 million workers.
Even during the pandemic, the government was mindful of the need to continue the works of the mega projects. It was a watershed moment when the 41st and last span of the Padma Bridge was installed on Dec 10, thereby offering a full view of the continuous 6.15 km structure for the first time. Since October, the government has been at full throttle with the other mega projects too, including the Padma Bridge Rail Project, Dhaka Metro Rail, the Karnaphuli Tunnel, the Rooppur Nuclear Power Project etc. No wonder that the Japanese envoy Ito Naoki recently opined that once these projects are completed, Bangladesh would have a completely new look (Dec 25, 2020).
The PM was also attentive about the developments in the vaccine front. The government was in talks with multiple developers from the early stages. As a result of her proactive stance, Bangladesh was able to sign a contract with preferential terms for receiving 30 million doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine from Serum Institute of India. Bangladesh is also set to receive 68 million doses of vaccine from the GAVI by the end of 2021, under the COVAX arrangement. The target is, to receive and administer, 55 million vaccines from both sources by June 2021.
It is said that a leader's mettle can only be truly tested during major crises. As was heard in a 2014 sci-fi blockbuster, "It is the fiery crucible in which true heroes are forged." In that sense, 2020 was a trial by fire for Sheikh Hasina. As Bangladeshis, we can be happy with the fact that the prime minister has prevailed, even if temporarily.
As we battle the second wave of COVID in Bangladesh and assess the long term social and economic fallouts of the pandemic not only on Bangladesh but on the world at large, one could be forgiven for finding the challenges ahead, near to insurmountable.
But with Sheikh Hasina at the helm, there are ample reasons to be optimistic for the future too.
May the Almighty bless everyone with a happy and healthy new year.
Happy New Year!