People go through a disinfection tunnel installed by Artoonad, a volunteer organisation, as a preventive measure amid the coronavirus disease outbreak in Dhaka, Bangladesh, April 16, 2020. Photo: Mohammad Ponir Hossain/Reuters

Sudipto Mukerjee

Disaster resilience and climate change have been and continue to be high on the development agenda for Bangladesh. Significant investments have been made over the years through infrastructural interventions, policy changes, institutional capacity building and awareness campaigns. In turn, each passing year has yielded impressive dividends with the country and its people growing increasingly adept at handling natural disasters with fewer casualties and better rebuilding. 

But now Bangladesh is faced with an unprecedented crisis. The nation has not had to battle anything remotely akin to the coronavirus pandemic in its recent history. The dominance of the informal sector in the economy paired with lack of adequate preparedness is revealing some serious underlying fragilities which pose far-reaching implications for developing countries such as Bangladesh and most of its South Asian neighbours.

Initially considered a public health crisis, this has quickly become a multidimensional humanitarian crisis, affecting each and every aspect of public life—in fact the collateral impacts of the outbreak in the form of millions becoming the "new poor" within weeks, going hungry and impoverished, and social discontent growing as prevention measures hit at the roots of culture and traditional practice have far outstripped the numbers directly affected by the disease.

Mere survival has become a challenge for those reliant on daily incomes, and those living in urban slums or remote areas. There are thousands who were never classified as being under the poverty line, such as barbers and rickshaw-pullers, who are now struggling to live day to day. Then there are several thousand blue collar workers in the lower to middle class who may not be able to return to their jobs in the immediate future. Many from these socio-income groups will very soon get affected and become tomorrow's poor.

While it is universally agreed that speed is of the essence, it is important that the multi-sectoral nature of the crisis should drive an integrated response, fed by reliable and transparent information. Here data governance becomes an issue to reflect upon—as the culture of data sharing is yet to be embedded institutionally.  

Although this is one of the biggest crisis the world has ever seen, lessons from similar public health induced multi-dimensional humanitarian disasters should be studied. Some of the key lessons from the 2014 Ebola Outbreak and subsequent recovery that I imbibed as a frontline responder can help point to important considerations.

Firstly, we must act speedily, and always maintain transparency and accuracy of information. This is crucial as crises tend to shake citizens' confidence, and ensuring their trust is critical for an effective campaign.

Next, both the response and recovery demanded behavioural change to minimise impacts and avert future crisis. Efforts to bring such change were more effective with closer community engagement, which helps sensitise response and recovery to local norms and practical needs. This required engagement with local and religious leadership who have great influence over their communities. With good information and greater awareness, communities tend to own up to the fight and after that, success quickly follows. 

The highest attention should be given to the population segments most disproportionately affected. Alongside this, building a resilient private sector, especially small businesses, can help ensure a swifter and more sustainable economic recovery. 

The final lesson was the state's acknowledgment that such a crisis is a fuel for social discontent and instability, therefore all response and recovery measures should not be driven by heavy-handed administrative and public security measures.

To stop poverty from grappling Bangladesh, we need plans for immediate recovery that will feed into longer-term plans. But such plans have never been drawn up before; there are no ready-made solutions. While the government will need to bring well-resourced programmes and policies for accelerated recovery into the five-year planning frame, United Nations with UNDP as the overall technical lead is also offering support to all affected countries. 

Multi-sectoral recovery interventions has to include helping the health sector stabilise; assisting the worst-hit people to weather the crisis; restoring small businesses so they can provide access to livelihoods, and prompt restoration of basic services such as children's education. All of these will bolster social stability.

The pandemic has resulted in more inequality than ever before, and has also highlighted the heavy price the planet has been paying for unsustainable economic growth. The UN Secretary General has renewed a call for global solidarity and appealed for recovery pathways to clean, green, and more responsible consumption.

UNDP has been a longstanding partner of Bangladesh in various key areas of development, from addressing urban poverty to climate change to the Rohingya refugee crisis. Our work here has helped take Bangladesh forward in reaching the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), but now, we must rethink our approach in achieving them within the 2030 target. In fact, the SDGs are more important now than ever—social discrimination and inequality is on the rise, making SDG-10 a top priority. Meanwhile, this crisis and the subsequent shutdown has shown the importance of letting nature into our lives, to allow it to heal, increasing the priority of environmental and conservational goals.

Along with the wider UN system, UNDP with generous support from UK-DFID, USAID, Swedish SIDA, DANIDA, Australian DFAT, the EU, Canadian GAC, philanthropic foundations and several private sector partners is already working to support the poor across Bangladesh, while also trying to better prioritise response and recovery, and learning new lessons. 

We are realising the critical need for proper coordination not just within the public sector but also between the public and private sectors. I have always maintained from my own experience that such coordination needs to be "dedicated, full-time, and necessarily empowered to be decisive". With improved coordination the speed and effectiveness will undoubtedly increase, enabling better risk-sharing between public and private sectors as the debate on "lives versus livelihoods" hits centre-stage.  

This pandemic is telling us to entirely rethink development. This will require unlearning many of the old ways and adopting brand new approaches that make humankind more equal, inclusive and responsible towards each other and the planet.  This will also help us seize opportunities for accelerated national development, consequently becoming better at managing these unprecedented shocks. And so, in closing, I am reminded of Alvin Toffler the futurist American author of "Future Shock", who famously said, "The illiterate of the 21st century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn."


Sudipto Mukerjee is the Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme in Bangladesh.

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