The dilemma between hunger and a pandemic

Sabina Faiz Rashid, The Daily Star, April 17 2020

Reading different narratives, survey results, and media reports and articles on the coronavirus pandemic, one is overcome with a range of emotions: depression, paralysis, anger, denial, helplessness—emotions that are reflective of being privileged, of having the luxury to dwell on them. For the vast number of poor microbusiness owners, labourers, transport workers, informal-sector employees, and many other groups who depend on daily wages/earnings and have no social safety net, there is now only the pain of hunger, not figuratively, but literally. With the shutdown now extended to a month, these groups are under the real threat of starvation.

There are international conventions and declarations on the right to food, on the right to be free from hunger. Yet an estimated 9 million people in the world are dying of hunger and hunger-related diseases annually, more than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined. It is the world’s biggest health problem, and with entire countries and economies now under lockdown, it risks getting a whole lot worse for those who live in difficult environments.

The poor and the vulnerable with their erratic and meagre earnings somehow manage to keep fighting and living. Every day is a battle, of continual unpredictability and uncertainty—be it economic or health or both. Being confronted with illnesses and deaths is not uncommon for many of the most marginalised. While there is the fear of the coronavirus, there is also the acceptance that it is yet another addition to an already long list of health challenges that they face. Furthermore, with access to their sparse resources being severely constrained or denied as a result of the shutdown, for many the immediate threat to consumption for survival—and not necessarily the pandemic—is becoming a greater concern. BRAC’s rapid perception survey on Covid-19, conducted between March 31 and April 5, 2020, found that 18 percent and 10 percent of urban and rural respondents respectively had no food stored at home, while 37 percent and 21 percent respectively had only 1-3 days’ food reserve.

Health bodies and governments in different countries have been promoting different measures to contain the pandemic that focus on individual behaviour with little attention to the social, economic and contextual factors. Public health preventions are based on the virus, and individual determinants of health, whereas for millions the stark social and contextual inequalities and realities of how and where they live prevent them from following such precautionary recommendations. Guidelines on social distancing, washing of hands with soap, and staying at home are all very well for the privileged who can afford to do so. For the poor with 5-6 members crammed in one-room dwellings, sharing irregular water supply and limited latrines in some of the dirtiest and densest places on earth, such messaging must surely feel like some sort of a cruel joke. Add to this the restrictions of the shutdown, and one becomes witness to a dystopian nightmare.

Bangladesh, like many other countries, has rolled out an economic stimulus package to address the severe economic and business fallout from the pandemic. The government is also in the process of unveiling support for the poor. This scheme will also include support for farmers who are critical for ensuring the food supply chain for all of us—the rich, the middle class, and the poor. While this package should really have been the first step taken by the state, it now needs to be implemented efficiently, systematically, and equitably. There are numerous articles and reports detailing the mismanagement and lack of coordination among different bodies involved in distributing the initial state-funded food and/or cash aid programmes. This has to stop. While there is no easy solution or strategy, for Bangladesh and its high proportion of vulnerable population, continuation of the shutdown has to be accompanied with strong political resolve to ensure that people do not go without basic meals and have basic health information and support, given the existing structural constraints. Otherwise, it will be the final nail in the coffin for the poor and maybe even beyond. The trauma and enormity of what will unfold if this is not done properly cannot be emphasised enough.

The shutdown or lockdown model has been imported from Western or developed economies with stronger economic bases and better social safety nets for those in need. But is it the only way forward? China, Hong Kong, Singapore, countries that were successful in containing the first wave of the coronavirus, are now facing the threat of its resurgence largely due to infections coming from overseas travellers, and some countries have begun reinstating containment measures again. How long can a shutdown be sustained? While this is an entirely unknown territory, Iran’s president, for instance, had declared that “low-risk” economic activities would resume from April 11 in spite of the virus not being contained. The Iranian government is thus balancing the risks of the pandemic versus further wrecking a sanctions-battered economy. Sadly, countries with large pools of poor populations may soon be forced to confront a similar tradeoff, with all its moral and ethical implications, if there is no solution soon in sight.

The poor and the vulnerable already live on the edge. The added stress of the pandemic combined with prolonged shutdowns will further amplify their despair and hopelessness. Therefore, while health is a very real concern, for Bangladesh to sustain the shutdown requires all of us to focus all of the country’s resources on ensuring that no one goes without food. We have to believe the rest will follow, once this is ensured. If not, as Nobel Laureates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee highlighted with respect to the situation in India, the poor and the vulnerable will be left with no choice but to break the shutdown for their livelihood.

The last interview of an adolescent street peddler that I read shared, “how much longer? We heard four more days. We have no food, no money.” These narratives are typical for most of the poor families we interviewed. Try imagining, if you can, the gut-wrenching panic and anxiety when many of them learn it will be an additional 10 days or more.

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