Aid agency Plan International is bracing for an immense increase in poverty and gender-based violence, as one of the world’s most populous countries grapples with mass-unemployment and restriction of movement.
Country Director for Plan International Bangladesh, Orla Murphy, said while confirmed cases of COVID-19 look comparatively low per capita (4186 with 127 deaths as of 24/4/20), the humanitarian situation unfolding beneath the surface may have repercussions that last generations.
“This is a country of 164 million people living on a very small land mass. If COVID-19 really takes root here the degree of spread that will happen will be quite phenomenal, because for millions of people here, there is no possibility of physical distancing,” Ms Murphy said.
“The country is absolutely not prepared for a large number of coronavirus cases and the health system is stretched already, so there is a real fear if COVID-19 takes hold, the health service will not have capacity to respond to those who become critically ill.”
As well as the massive toll the virus could herald for loss of life, Ms Murphy says the exacerbation of extreme poverty will be widespread and profound.
“In Bangladesh, in addition to people who are older and have underlying health conditions, those most vulnerable to COVID-19 are daily wage earners who live week to week and day to day. They don’t have that safety net of one or two months’ salary. It is likely the government will not be able to expand social protection schemes fast enough and deep enough. The economic impact of this will be colossal.”
Ms Murphy explained that the majority of employment (90%) is in the informal sector. The ready-made garment sector employs in the region of four million people and there are anecdotal reports the markets that employ the majority of migrant workers have closed, too. Some 20 million Bangladeshis are already classed as ‘ultra-poor’.
“This crisis is impacting everybody around the world, and that’s certainly true, but for those who have poverty of voice, financial poverty, poverty in decision making, the impacts are so much greater.”
Ms Murphy said as well as a looming poverty catastrophe, there is another insidious and mostly hidden crisis that is concerning humanitarian organisations.
“We expect there will be a rise in gender-based violence,” she said. “Social distancing puts strain on families and Bangladesh already has one of the highest rates of child, early and forced marriage in the world. Normally, violence against girls and women is a problem here and COVID-19 will only amplify that risk.
“We are particularly concerned about the impact an outbreak of COVID-19 will have on girls. Girls are most vulnerable and being confined, they will no longer have access to the normal mechanisms for support.”
To prepare for the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, Plan International Bangladesh has developed a robust emergency response plan prioritising child protection, digital education and learning spaces and cash-based aid for families who are struggling. The organisation has also developed an emergency response plan that focusses primarily on child protection and education, as well as COVID-19 hygiene and awareness-raising.
Please give to Plan International Australia’s COVID-19 appeal: raising funds to support vulnerable communities to prevent the spread of the disease. Via www.plan.org.au or 13PLAN.