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Covid and after

Hasnat Abdul Hye | November 10, 2021 00:00:00

'Sure Cure': Long queues for Covid-19 vaccines at a centre in Dhaka recently — FE photo

In the process of winding down after almost two years' of wreaking havoc all over the world, Covid-19 has been a water-shed event the like of which has been witnessed only a few times in the past like the two World Wars. The great Depression of the '30s and the Spanish Flu of 1920 that lasted for two years come close but do not bear much comparison to the cataclysmic pandemic as these two events were confined to mostly the developed countries in their devastating consequences. Covid-19 is the first pandemic that has straddled the whole world, affecting almost all countries touching human lives, politics, society, economy and global order. This is an overview of the impact of the catastrophic event so far and the trajectory of recovery in various countries, particularly in Bangladesh in these respects on the basis of information and data gleaned from print media and tries to make a tentative attempt at visualising the scenarios for the future, in the near and long terms. For this purpose the discussion and analysis has been divided under various heads.

Human lives: According to data published by worldometer, as of November 02 this year, a total of 248,330,567 persons were infected globally by SARS Covid-2 virus out of whom 5,029,740 deaths took place in 233 countries taken together.

There are country wise variations in the figures on infections and deaths that reveal differential public health conditions and response by governments.

China, where the pandemic broke out first perhaps in December 2019 ( they are cagey about releasing figures) the number of infected people were 96502 and deaths only 4635,which has to be taken with a grain of salt. Being an authoritarian country it was better positioned than democracies to control the spread but that alone does not explain the very low figures, given its large population. Russia, a semi-authoritarian country based on a single person in power, rather than a single party fared less well with 8543200 cases of infection and 240,871 deaths. In the greatest democracy, the USA, under the gung- ho presidency of Donald Trump, there was denial at first about the incidence of the outbreak as if acknowledging it would redound to the discredit of the Administration. When the pandemic spread like wildfire from the west coast to the east there was belated but half-hearted response from the Federal government but its response was hobbled by shortages of items like masks, gloves, protective uniform and even hospital beds, ICUs and scant number of ventilators. While embattled states struggled to cope with increasing number of patients very little was forthcoming from the Federal Administration. Particularly to blue states under Democratic party control.

An elderly person rests against a post in Dhaka: The second wave of Covid-19 has pushed up the number of new poor to 32.4 million in Bangladesh — FE Photo

The hesitancy of the President to invoke the wartime provision of making manufacturing companies to change over production to basic items (ventilators in this case) was not availed of until very late. On top of it, there was relative inaction on the ground that addressing the pandemic was a state responsibility. What was most shocking was President Trump's frequent snubbing of medical experts who recommend stern measures to combat the pandemic. As a result of this lackadaisical attitude and policy the USA has recorded the highest number of death in the world numbering 768847 against total infection of 46999771 infections. The second highest deaths took place in Brazil (over 40 million deaths) where the President Bolsenoro in true Latin macho style declared the pandemic a small nuisance and refused to not only lockdown but also against wearing of masks and social distancing measures. Across the Atlantic, Italy fared worst, being the first European country facing a sudden surge of Covid patients. Though a member of European Union (EU), it did not receive any help from member countries and had to fend for itself while death toll rose becoming the highest in Europe. The UK handled the crisis better being methodical in imposing lockdown and exborating people to comply with various restrictions like home isolation, social distancing and wearing of masks. As a result the country has maintained a rather low figure of deaths. Starvation and other privations were avoided through timely and adequate welfare measures in cash and kind for which fiscal policy bore the brunt. At no time people were seen lining up for food help as happened in America. Among the EU countries Sweden played the role of maverick, refusing to declare lockdown. That it avowal of individual freedom went too far in the time of pandemic has been reflected in very high figures of deaths(14916) and in the number of infections(1,161,933), very high percentages in view of its small population. Turkey, an outlier country on the eastern fringe of EU came off with flying colours, both in respect of rate of infection(7630163) and deaths(117260). Some ascribe this to the semi-authoritarian rule by President Erdogan, but others think the herd immunity of the people there may also have contributed to these low figures.

In Bangladesh the first case of SARS-COV2 was reported on March 10,2020. By that time Covid19 was playing havoc in Italy where many Bangladeshi migrants were. The government was slow in taking measures as migrants returned in droves, fleeing from Italy. The returnees were not put into institutional quarantine and were allowed to go their village homes with the advice of home isolation. This is not work for lack of co-operation and absence of enforcement by local authorities. As cases of infection surged the government declared 'holiday' for fifteen days which was extended later by several stages totalling about two months. The people at first took 'holiday' literally and prepared to go their village home. When home isolation was enforced it was not very successful as people came out to buy food and other essential goods. Sale of these items by government agencies during the 'holiday' saw throngs of people lining up in queue outdoors, negating home isolation. No arrangement was made for feeding the poor and unemployed many of whom came out in search of work and food. Some, particularly poor women were seen begging in streets. The cash assistance to poor did not reach them in time as lists were being prepared at district levels in a lengthy procedure. Much hardship was caused because of lack of advance preparations and pragmatic measures. Deaths rose for lack of basic items and facilities in hospitals. In spite of the unpreparedness and inadequate measures the number of infections and deaths remained at a low level, though during the second wave in July-August period the infection rose to 28 per cent of those tested. Vaccination and use of mask brought the figures of infections and deaths down. On 15 October Bangladesh recorded the rate of infection to 1.88 per cent the lowest in one and a half years. The number of deaths also registered a sharp decline, with mortality rate being 1.79 per cent of the infected. After the initial debacle Bangladesh has fared well in controlling the toll in human life. Success in public health measures like hand washing, wearing masks and the vaccination drive have contributed to this though the herd immunity factor cannot be ruled out.

In neighbouring India management of the pandemic has been uneven as a result of which it has recorded the third highest number of deaths in the world, 459,203 until October 31, 2021.

The question being asked now, even before the scourge of the pandemic is over, is whether a lesson will be learnt by countries from the harrowing experience gone through during the nearly two years to make policy changes that will forestall the loss of human lives in such large numbers. This will obviously depend on a change in mindset of political leaders and administrators. Outbreak of any disease, particularly of a new variety has to be taken as a danger signal even before it morphed into epidemic form. Given the inertia in governments it is not very much likely to happen. Once normalcy returns doing things in a routine manner in public health, as elsewhere, will stage a comeback. There has to be regular monitoring of public health situation in all countries by an independent body through which early warning signal should be made. There is such an agency with the name of WHO but, to judge by its performance during the outbreak of Covid pandemic, it did not play its vital role satisfactorily. Rather than condemning, the member countries should strengthen its capacity, giving it power to oversee the health situation in all countries without let or hindrance. WHO on its part should not hesitate to be the whistle-blower when the need arises, no matter which country is involved.

Covid and politics: Politics in most countries is exercised through parties, major and minor ones, including the party in power. Soon after the outbreak of the pandemic when lockdown ('holiday') was declared three types of responses were expected from the political parties. Firstly, declaration of solidarity among the parties to address the crisis that had taken national character. This was conspicuous by its absence, not only in Bangladesh but also in other countries. It did not, however, apply to single-party countries like China or North Korea. But in these latter countries there was no exhortation to the people on behalf the official party to comply with official instructions regarding the pandemic. The parties are in lock-step with the government in all decisions taken and this was no exception when the Covid-19 outbreak. In democracies where two major parties rule the roost, as in USA, the UK and to some extent in Bangladesh, bi-partisan unity was not seen in the context of the unprecedented national crisis Rather, the parties kept their partisan interests in view in expressing opinions and views, with both overt and subtle objectives of discrediting the party in power. In America, where bi- partisan agreement is expected in times of national crisis, the mutual bickering and consequent stalemate in passing the stimulus packages in the Congress revealed the fault-lines in America's politics where party ideology and interests predominate.

Jabbing students: A campaign was launched recently to inoculate school students to get the wheel of education back in motion — FE photo

The second role expected of political parties and their leaders during the pandemic was creation of awareness among public about magnitude of the crisis and exhort them about the urgency to observe the protocol prescribed for their protection. This was left to ministries of health in most countries. Even local government institutions and other civic bodies were silent about this, suggesting not so subtly that a crisis like pandemic was the responsibility of government alone. In Bangladesh and many other countries the tasks of awareness creation and motivation of public were carried out by government functionaries mostly.

The third action expected of political parties and their leaders was coming forward to help the poor and the unemployed with food, medicine and other essential items. Again, this role was thought to devolve on government alone. After the crisis had panned out some politicians were seen helping the poor but this sporadic and token in nature. No help was given by political parties and their leaders, either in democracies or in autocratic regimes. In Bangladesh a few political parties organised help for the poor but these were not only belated but very temporary in nature and not in a sustained manner.

By and large, Covid pandemic did not see any significant change in democracies and illiberal democracies (autocracies) in the style and content of conducting politics. This is a glaring failure of politics, particularly in democracies to rise to the occasion and bring about changes in respect of rendering service to public in times of crisis. If there was any doubt about the nature and objectives of politics it was made crystal clear that politics was all about getting into power through elections and providing service to people once installed in power through the government. Parties and leaders have little to. do with public service outside the machinery of government.

If there was no change in politics, political parties' working and in the conduct of politicians during the devastating run of the pandemic it is futile to expect any change after it is over. There will be no soul searching and change of policies (for parties) and attitudes of politicians regarding their role in providing service to the people. Their message will be the same as before: elect us to power and we will use government (public) resource for providing service to you.

Two or three reasons can be cited to explain why politics failed to change even after the cataclysmic event of the pandemic. The first is the inherent tendencies of political parties to maintain an adversarial role, vying with each other to be in power. In a negative sense this means not helping the main rival, particularly the one in power so as not to strengthen its standing with people. With this mindset it is not possible for parties to change their attitude to rival parties. The second reason (in fact the first for the case in point) for parties not to change their policy of not coming forward to help needy public, even in times of distress, is the consideration that party fund mobilised through various means is for running the party machinery and for election campaigns. Any demand on this fund for other purposes, even for humanitarian purposes, is anathema to politicians. This attitude is buttressed by the time-worn belief that expenditure for crisis management is the responsibility of the government, just as development activities are.

If a catastrophic like Covid pandemic has not been able to change politics one cannot think of any other event, short of an attack by Martians, that will trigger any significant change in future. The best that can be said about change in politics in future in the wake of the pandemic is to reiterate the popular French saying: the more it changes, the more it remains the same.

The society during covid: The impact and consequence of Covid on society can be evaluated through individual and group (organised as social capital) behaviour. In general the pandemic exposed lack of social cohesion even among the same class and absence of empathy by the well to do towards the poor and disadvantaged. Even voluntary social organisations failed to rise The occasion.

The example of the first was seen soon after the fatal nature of the new virus became known when not to speak of friends, even near and dear ones did not enquire about the infected persons undergoing treatment in hospitals. The dead were buried in mass graves by professionals or volunteers without near relations in attendance. When a particular person showed first symptoms of the disease people in the neighbourhood not only stayed away, serious outcry rose against the ill person's presence among them even Covid and after, though home isolation would be quite in order. In showing this anger and lack of sympathy, people 's behaviour was a reminder of how mobs set fire on houses with patients infected by plague in the Middle Age in Europe. Even doctors and nurses who became darling of people because of their tireless services during the pandemic were not spared from this kind of persecution when they fell ill. In Bangladesh this kind of cruelty was aided by the practice of holding red flag over the house of one having symptom of the disease. Fortunately this sudden public hysteria did not last long but these incidents showed how fragile is social relations in the face of danger and risks of the same. Curiously enough, this kind anti-social behaviour and antipathy towards the victims of the disease were more in evidence in developing countries than in the developed ones. People in developed countries not being immune to occasional frenzy, this differential may perhaps be explained by their trust on public authorities to take prompt action for safeguarding public safety.

On another front, the lack of empathy by individuals in times of emergency towards the less fortunate was seen during the pandemic when people of means did not come forward to help the poor and the needy. Not to to speak of regular assistance through food or cash assistance very little or nothing was done by the well to do by way of relieving the distress of the unfortunate. In almost all countries the affluent class remained aloof from any kind of relief work. A common scene during the pandemic was closed gates and closed windows in the mansions of the rich. Perhaps they thought that it was the sole responsibility of the government to provide assistance to the affected people. The disappearance of charitable work by the rich even in times of unprecedented crisis may suggest that having to pay right, left and centre on daily basis their milk of human kindness has run dry. The conclusion to be drawn from this experience is that when a devastating pandemic has failed to make them charitable, nothing will change their attitude in future. In short, the days of philanthropy is over.

Over the years every country has built up social capital in the form of volutary social organisations that undertake social welfare work among others. In addition to these traditional social organisations many civil society organisations and non-governmental organisations have also been active in what has been described as 'social engineering', which includes poverty alleviation. They receive very generous volume of financial grant from bi-lateral and multi-lateral institutions. Strangely enough, these organisations. were not seen coming to the help of the poor, old and new, during the pandemic in any of the countries where they operate. Some of them gave token help which did little to alleviate the distress of the people adversely affected by the pandemic. On the other hand, most of these organisations were seen busy conducting survey of affected people through telephone interview on random basis. It was a very cheap, almost cost free and clever way of letting people know that they are very much seized with the problem. Perhaps on the basis of past habit they were expecting big dollop of donations to come from donors with which poverty alleviation programs would be taken up as in the past. But this time around peddling poverty is not going to make manna fall from the sky for the simple reason that the donors themselved are feeling the pinch. One may ask why these NGOs have not built up a contingency fund to carry on with their savings in times like this? What about the profit from their various commercial ventures?

How is this being spent and for whose benefit? If there is no one, the pandemic affected people should demand a full disclosure of the financial affairs of the conglomerates run by NGOs.

Discussion of the role of social organisations will not be complete if the performance of local bodies like municipal corporations are taken into account. In almost all developing, even emerging economies these bodies were by and large conspicuous by their absence during a good part of the pandemic. They have no feeling program, medical services, even burial facilities for the poor to show their credit. If a catastrophic like the pandemic does not galvanise them into action what will?

In short, the much vaunted social capital reportedly developed in many countries over the past decades was not seen doing even the minimum that was expected. The future cannot be any better, it has to be admitted with regret.

Governance: Even in the best of times governance in almost all countries is found wanting in many respects particularly inadequate service, removal of red-tapism and corruption. During Covid-19 these deficits in governance yawned manifold. Governments in countries, developed and developing, were found unprepared to cope with the need for providing services, both preventive and curative. While preventive measures, in the absence of vaccine, was elementary like hand washing, wearing masks and social distancing the most important of these, wearing masks, became next to impossible because of its non-availability. Even in preparing this simple item there was inordinate delay. Enforcing its use became difficult even in developed countries like America. The Brazilian president brazenly refused to prescribe, not to speak of mandating, the use of mask even when the number of deaths peaked. The treatment of patients with severe symptoms was lackadaisical because of the shortages of manpower--doctors, nurses, technicians in all countries. Some countries like UK scrambled to call up retired personnel to meet the emergency while in countries like Bangladesh thousands of vacant posts lying vacant for months and years were filled up overnight revealing the lack of urgency by authorities to fill up vacant posts with new recruitment. This indifference could be due to simple red tapism or because of corrupt practice in recruiting new personnel. That procedurally there was no problem was demonstrated by the expeditious recruitment of 5000 doctors and 6000 plus nurses within a week. After manpower the shortages faced were no less serious. These included inadequate number of hospital beds, ICU beds equipped with oxygen cylinders and ventilators needed for patients brought for treatment. These were essential for treatment as no effective medicine was available for use. To meet shortages of beds stadium and conventional halls were converted into make-shift hospitals. This was promptly done in the UK because of the efficiency of the National Health Service (NHS), the public sector agency developed under the welfare state model was adopted after the second world war. In America and elsewhere where socialised health care was not available prompt action in this regard was not witnessed. In Bangladesh and India private hospitals were designated as covid-dedicated hospitals but these hospitals accepted this new role half- heartedly and charged patients at exorbitant rates. They also refused to admit patients with other diseases with the pretext of treating Covid patients. As a result hospital care even for critically ill patients stopped in many places in countries like Bangladesh. The government did little to stop these arbitrary conduct of hospitals.

Among shortages for treatment of patients the one for ventilator was most acute. It meant the difference between life and death to patents who were critically ill. The shortage of such a crucial equipment in hospital around the world shows the cynical attitude of authorities about enforcing minimum standard in hospitals in respect of life saving equipment. This attitude was brought to focus when in America demand for ventilators far outstripped the demand and President dithered in invoking war-time power vested bin him to order industries to manufacture essential items from bombs to ventilators. At one point he declared that health was a state responsibility and his administration had little to do with the curative aspect of health service. The reason why he was hesitant to take a robust step to combat Covid was the ideological. Health service in America is largely dependent on the market and he did not want to take any measure that might look like 'socialising' it.

The shortage of ventilators continued almost all through the pandemic and no measure was taken in countries that manufacture it in large number lest price goes down.

Even for simple item like mask shortages persisted for long. But the shortage that became most critical was that of personal protection equipment (PPE) for doctors, nurses and other frontline workers. This shortage not only slowed down treatment of patients but was also responsible for large number of deaths of frontline medical staff in almost all countries. In this Bangladesh can claim some credit for making PPE through garment factories soon after the outbreak of the pandemic but for this the government did nothing by way of giving incentives.

For all their poor record in observing human rights, the authoritarian regimes came off with flying colours in handling the public health crisis as a result of which bother the infection and death rates were kept low. This was possible not only because of the nature of state power but also because of the well organised health care system in these countries. Their experience has proved that a vital sector dealing with public welfare cannot fare well both in normal times and emergencies. It remains to be seen if countries with free market will learn from their experience and socialise the health sector, at least on the NHS model of UK.

The most scandalous part of inadequate governance in the health sector during the pandemic was the indulgence of corrupt practices in respect of procurement of equipment and various supplies. In countries like Bangladesh the cabal comprising administrators, health personnel and politicians not only the fund made available for health sector was found to be much less than the minimum of 6 per cent recommended by WHO. An urgent re-think about this is called for by the experience of pandemic. Equally important is the need of keeping the expenses for treatment at affordable level for the patients. According to a recent study about 60 per cent of total medical bill has to be met by patients in Bangladesh which makes health care services inaccessible for the poor.

Everything else may revert back to status quo ante after the pandemic is over but the activities in health sector cannot and should not. It is the litmus test for improvement in governance. If countries fail on this score then it will be sadly concluded that the deaths caused by the killer virus were in vain and nothing has been learnt from the experience of the pandemic.

Economic Impact: The Global Financial Stability Report and the World Economic Outlook published by IMF in October,2021 make for a mixed reading. They raise apprehension and optimism about steady and quick recovery from the economic ravages of the pandemic. Compared to the July forecast by the Fund, the global growth projection for 2021 has been revised down to 5.9 per cent, the change though marginal, indicates that recovery will be a long and slow slog. The forecast for 2022 has, however, been kept unchanged which is curious because if the short term prospect has deteriorated how can the medium term forecast remain unchanged? What is more disconcerting is that this modest revision hides large downgrades for some countries. The prospects for quick recovery for low income countries have become gloomier considerably due to worsening pandemic dynamics. The downgrade also indicates more difficult near- term prospects for the developed countries due to supply disruptions. Pandemic related disruptions to contact-intensive sectors have caused the labour market recovery to considerably lag the manufacturing recovery in many countries.

Divergence in economic prospects across countries remain a major concern, the IMF reports point out. Aggregate output for the advanced economies is expected to regain pre- pandemic level in 2022 and is expected to exceed by 0.9 per cent in 2024, a very modest increase. The emerging countries and the developing economies, on the other hand, are expected to suffer a decline of 5.5 per cent in their aggregate output below the pre- pandemic level in 2024. China will be an exception to this and may gain in aggregate output even more than the developed economies. According to IMF, these divergences are due to the great 'vaccine divide' and large disparities in policy support given by governments. While 60 per cent of population in developed countries are fully vaccinated, 96 per cent of people in low income countries remain unvaccinated.

On the other front, many emerging and developing economies, faced with shrinking fiscal space and a greater risk of inflation are winding down policy support in the form of stimulus packages rather prematurely.

Supply disruptions pose another challenge for recovery of manufacturing activities in many countries through shortages of key inputs due to pandemic. At the same time the supply shortages along with release of pent-up demand and rise in commodity prices have caused consumer price inflation to increase in countries including USA, Germany and China. Many emerging economies and developing countries like Bangladesh are also experiencing incipient inflation because of demand pull factor. In many low income countries food prices have sharply risen.

The October, 2021Global Financial Stability Report has pointed out the challenge to monetary policy for increased risk-taking in financial markets and increasing incidence of weakness, even failures of non-bank financial institutions sector.

The IMF has stressed concerted multi- lateral efforts to ensure additional international liquidity for countries facing fiscal and monetary constraints and faster implementation of G20 consensus on restructuring unsustainable debt to reduce divergence across countries. After announcement of availability of additional US dollar 650 billion as Special Drawing Rights (SDR), IMF is now calling on rich countries to voluntarily channel their SDRs into Poverty Reduction and Growth Trust set up by it. It is also exploring the possibility of establishing a resilience and sustainability trust, which would provide in sustainable growth.

In the backdrop of this overview of the state of global economic recovery and its prospects, the forecast by ADB of Bangladesh's GDP growth at 5.5 per cent during current fiscal (2021-2022) appears encouraging, though the government's projection in the current budget is above 7.0 per cent. The difference does not matter much as long as the momentum is kept up and possible headwinds are averted. In the last fiscal Bangladesh economy witnessed a substantial fall in GDP, lowered at 4.6 per cent after posting above 7.0 per cent growth rate during the past several years.

Higher growth rates for the current fiscal have been forecast by the World Bank (6.4 per cent) and IMF(5.8 per cent). Behind these positive forecasts three factors can be identified. Firstly, the macroeconomic management during the pandemic has been very pragmatic, particularly the quick decision on the stimulus packages for different sectors. Though implementing these packages proved to be problematic, particularly for the cottage , small and medium enterprises (CSME) the stimulus kept the wheels of manufacturing moving. Incentives given to the agricultural sector, where the majority are employed, kept both employment in the primary sector and its production of food items and cash crops at pre- pandemic level. Keeping the importance of the CSME sector, both in respect of GDP contribution and employment, the government announced a second stimulus package of Tk1.5 billion in January this year. To avoid the reluctance of banks to finance this sector on the alleged ground of non- payments, government decided to didburse this fund through the Small and Cottage Industries Corporation and the Bangladesh Rural Development Board which has proved to be very effective. The last tranche of this fund (Tk 2000 million) was disbursed last month.

The second factor contributing to the recovery of Bangladesh economy has been the steady flow of wage earners' remittance. If there is no third wave of the pandemic in the host countries, this source of foreign exchange earnings can only go on increasing.

The third factor that has held up Bangladesh economy is the garment sector. Though quite a few of medium size industries had to be closed down, the sector as a whole stood its ground and kept the delivery schedule to their buyers. With normalcy in the importing countries the export volume can be expected to go up.

Another indicator of the success of macroeconomic management is the increase in private sector lending in recent months.

The worrying aspect of the growth momentum is the increase in public borrowing from banks, savings certificates and foreign loans. During the current fiscal borrowing increased by 14 per cent over last year and stood at Tk.11 Lakh 44 Thousand Crore which together with existing debt amounts to 38 per cent of GDP. During last fiscal the figure was 36 per cent.

The present fiscal has also seen a major increase in foreign borrowing, particularly for short term. This increase was mainly because of the limited fiscal space and the need for additional expenditures on account of the pandemic. According to Bangladesh Bank total external debt stood at US$ 78.04 billion at the end of last June. The external debt amounts to 22 per cent of GDP. The debt burden is tolerable in so far as repayment is concerned, it has to be reined in lest the country ends up being heavily debt-dependent.

One of the puzzling development during the pandemic has been the increase in the number of superrich. According to one source the number of billionaires increased by 16 per cent over the last year (Jai. Jai Din, Oct.2021).

The increase in the number of rich indicates worsening of the inequality situation. This has been a global development. Though this is being criticised by intellectuals and cross section of the public very little attention has been given by government anywhere. Pre-occupation with recovery from pandemic should not be an excuse to overlook the elephant in the room. It has been here for quite some time and needs to be noticed with due urgency.

Predictably, the number of the poor has increased in almost all the countries as a result of the pandemic. In Bangladesh where rate of poverty declined to 12 per cent has doubled after the pandemic. This situation is not going to improve with economic recovery, because like growth, recovery is not going to lift all boats together.

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