A UNDP working paper has suggested that nearly 6.53 crore people need to receive time-bound temporary cash payments in order to cope with the devastating financial impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. The enormity of this statement cannot be lost on the government. It means 6.53 crore people are in dire need of cash in the coming months. The UN organisation recommends Tk 2,100 per month for the next few months so that the beneficiaries, mainly poor and the newly impoverished, can stay at home which will help to slow the spread of the virus. At present, infection rates are high and the virus has spread all over the country—the 16th worst hit in the world. Partial opening to ease the economic hardship has led to this situation which will worsen unless drastic measures are taken.
The hardest hit by the pandemic are those in the informal sector who earn low wages and include women, young people, migrant workers, refugees and people with disabilities—none of whom are covered in the social insurance programmes.According to a Brac survey, earnings of 51 percent households in Bangladesh plunged to zero due to the coronavirus outbreak. Without such cash handouts, they may literally starve.
A national strategy is therefore immediately needed to provide this cash support while increasing testing and contact tracing in areas where transmissions are high.
Firstly the government must acknowledge the enormity of the task ahead which is to come up with an estimated USD 1,623.4 million to help these people to help them buy food, pay for health and education expenses, etc. This will require mobilising funds from its own sources as well as from the international community and the private sector.
But just having enough funds to pay such emergency cash handouts will be of no use if the money is not managed properly and distributed to those who need it most. The government has allocated Tk 1,250 crore for nearly 50 lakh families and each family is supposed to receive Tk 2,500 a month. But the government has managed to disburse the funds only among 16.16 lakh families amid inconsistencies found in the list of beneficiaries. The list has been revised and sent by the district administration but according to the finance division around 10 lakh families will be provided with cash before the coming Eid. This is only a fraction of the population that must be helped immediately.
The irregularities that lead to leakages in the funds available must be eliminated before new funds are distributed. This means the list has to be properly made with the legitimate beneficiaries identified by experts and organisations that work with poor populations. The cash can be distributed through electronic transfer. The task at hand is no doubt formidable. But it has to be undertaken on an urgent basis and can be accomplished if there is political will. With 6.53 crore peoples' lives hanging in the balance, there is no time to waste.