Coronavirus outbreak: Informal sector takes a big hit as Dhaka residents attempt to flatten the curve | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 20, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:57 AM, March 21, 2020

Coronavirus outbreak: Informal sector takes a big hit as Dhaka residents attempt to flatten the curve

Coronavirus has upended much of the daily life in most parts of the world. And Dhaka, too, is not left behind.

But for daily income earners and street vendors in Dhaka city, who live from hand to mouth, this has been particularly cruel.

"I have never faced this type of situation," said Mohammad Khokon, who earned Tk 300 by pedalling rickshaw for five hours in Dhanmondi area on Wednesday.

His daily earnings began to take a big hit from March 17, when all educational institutions were declared closed for a fortnight, as part of the government's efforts to contain the lethal, pneumonia-like virus that has spread like wildfire across at least 166 countries and territories, striking 222,643 and killing 9,115 after originating in China at the end of last year.

In Bangladesh, the maiden cases were reported on March 7 and since then has increased to 18 and killed one.

The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

So, social distancing is advocated.

Since schools and colleges shut, there has not been much demand for rickshaws.

"Things are progressively getting worse. People offer half the fare that they used to pay previously. I have no other option but to accept it as there are too many rickshaws on the roads," said the thirty-year old Khokon.

He is not alone though. There are: five lakh rickshaw-pullers; 25,000 CNG-powered auto-rickshaw drivers; ride-hailing motorcycle drivers; street vendors; van-pullers; bus drivers; cobblers -- all on the same boat.

Mantu Sheikh, who runs a CNG-powered auto-rickshaw, began his day at 7:30am and ran the vehicle until 4pm, earning Tk 400 as there were not many people out on the streets as fear of coronavirus reigned supreme. 

"This was my worst day," he told The Daily Star in the city's Farmgate area on Wednesday.

He has to pay Tk 900 as rent to the owner of the vehicle every day, but he will be unable to -- that day.

Mohammad Hossain, a 40-year old van-puller, only earns Tk 600 from morning to afternoon after making just a trip, much lower than his average income of Tk 1,500 and Tk 1,800 involving at least three trips.

But it is the street vendors who sell sliced fruits, peanuts, phuchkas, puffed rice and tea are the worst hit.

Fifteen-year old Maruf sells phuchka on the footpath in Dhanmondi. His full-day sales totalled Tk 900, one-third of his regular turnover of Tk 3,000.

Only 50 feet away, Mohammad Selim, a 58-year old tea-seller, has been able to earn Tk 2,000 to Tk 3,000 every day for the last couple of days, whereas it used to be Tk 8,000 to Tk 9,000.

"People are scared to take street food," he said, wondering how he long he would be able to keep his only worker amid the slumping sales.

Mainuddin Dipu sells sliced papaya in front of Ananda Cinema Hall in Farmgate. His sales also halved.  "Do fruits contain virus?" he asked.

When informed of the possibility of catching the deadly virus, the day labourers and small business owners said they cannot even think of staying in -- they cannot afford to.

"We depend on our everyday sales. Our families depend on our incomes. We can't afford to stop working for a single day," said Md Alam, a 55-year old rickshaw-puller. 

Before the outbreak of coronavirus in Bangladesh, the daily income of Faridul Islam, an Uber Moto driver, was about Tk 1,000 to Tk 1,200 per day. But his income plunged to Tk 400 to Tk 500 in the last three days.

His daily trip frequency declined to 6-7 from 12-14 previously.

"Even after risking getting exposed to the virus, I cannot even earn enough to bear my essential expenses," said Islam, who hails from Gopalganj's Kotalipara but now lives in Mirpur 11 with his family.

And to compound matters, some unscrupulous businesspeople are hiking the prices of daily commodities, he added.

"The coronavirus outbreak has hit our incomes hard," said Md Kawsar Hossen, who has been working as an Uber Moto driver for the last five months.

Hossen said he can now earn at best Tk 10 for each kilometre, which was Tk 15 at the end of February, when fear of coronavirus was muted.

Moreover, the number of rides also fell drastically.

"It's now tough for me to get nine rides a day. Before, I could easily do 13 trips," he added.

Their plight as Dhaka, a city of two crore, organically goes on lockdown raises the question: should the government provide them with financial support like cash transfer and income supplement.

Faced with an unprecedented economic crisis caused by the coronavirus outbreak, the Trump administration is considering sending most American adults a check for $1,000 as part of efforts to stimulate the economy and help workers whose jobs have been disrupted by business closures because of the pandemic.

"Americans need cash now, and the president wants to get cash now -- and I mean in the next two weeks," Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said at a White House briefing Tuesday.

Over in neighbouring India, the state government of Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state with a population of 200 million and one of the poorest in India, announce on Tuesday that it would make online payments to poor and daily wage workers if they lost work because of the global pandemic that has caused chaos worldwide and badly affected economic activities.

Zahid Hussain, former lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office, suggests something similar for the urban poor.

The government can work with some non-governmental organisations like Brac that have experience of working with urban poor in identifying them and better targeting the cash transfer.

"There is no proper safety net for urban informal sector in Bangladesh. These people don't know how to cope if measures like lockdown is taken," he said. 

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