Double trouble for the poor amid pandemic | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, October 16, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 01:51 AM, October 16, 2020

World food day

Double trouble for the poor amid pandemic

Rising prices of essentials force many to cut food intake, use up savings

House help Salma Khatun and her rickshaw-puller husband Forkan Ali saved their hard-earned money for the future of their two daughters.

But the outbreak of the novel coronavirus and the subsequent shutdown threw their life into disarray, leaving them jobless for three months. The crisis forced them to spend their entire savings of around Tk 50,000 and borrow an additional Tk 20,000 to make ends meet.

Although the couple is now trying hard to turn things around, they are grappling with the ever-increasing prices of food and other basic commodities.

"Our earnings have been fallen, but expenditure is on the rise. And the soaring prices of essentials are making matters worse. Before the pandemic, we used to eat fish and meat more often. Now, we have no option but to cut down on those," said a frustrated Salma.

"I slash other expenses to cover the food budget, yet I fail to ensure adequate food for my family. Even buying eggs and potatoes have now become difficult for many of us," she said.

Like Salma and Forkan, hundreds of daily wage earners, including day labourers, hawkers, rickshaw-pullers, roadside vendors, and small business owners, are facing double the crisis -- a dwindling income and rising food prices, shrinking their access to adequate and sufficient food.

According to World Hunger Index (GHI) 2020, published on October 12, Bangladesh has reduced hunger by a significant margin, but the severity of the crisis still remains serious. The country has moved 13 notches up to the 75th position among 107 countries in the index.

Arif Hossain, chief executive officer and executive director of Farming Future Bangladesh (FFB), thinks the country may not face the worst adversity of pandemic in the food and nutrition sector as it is self-sufficient in food production due to the government's various measures.

"But a coordinated and long term multi-sectoral strategic approach will be vital to ensure nutrition and food security for the future of Bangladesh," he said.

"We need science and advanced agricultural innovations for healthier and nutritious food. We also need nation-wide awareness through evidence-based information to ensure equal access to nutritious food for the poor and ultra-poor people," said Arif, also a visiting scientist at Cornell University.

Experts said the availability of food must be increased along with the food production to ensure sufficient access to food for marginalised people. Besides, a proper distribution channel along with a smooth supply chain has to be ensured, they added.

According to finance ministry sources, some 2.54 crore families in 496 upazilas and municipalities had received rice and cash handovers in April, May and June.

Food Secretary Mosammat Nazmanara Khanum said although the food assistance programmes and open market sales are going on, no fresh programmes would be launched any time soon targeting the new poor.

Under the food assistance programmes, a total of 155,813 tonnes of rice was sold at Tk 10 in September and around 1.5 lakh tonnes rice was allocated for the month of October, she said.

"We are thinking of the new poor but no programme has yet been initiated," she said.

Agriculture Minister Abdur Razzaque said, "Even after the success in food production, we need to be aware of food and nutrition security in post-Covid-19 Bangladesh."

"We must continue our initiative," he said at a press briefing at the secretariat office yesterday.

Against this backdrop, the country commemorates World Food Day today with the theme "Grow, nourish, sustain together - Our actions are our future".

The day comes as Bangladesh and the rest of the world continue to fight the pandemic, which has caused unprecedented economic and social disruption, leaving thousands out of work or working for less pay, making new poor.

According to the government's estimate, the pandemic has doubled poverty in Bangladesh, raising the number of the country's ultra-poor from 10.5 percent of the population to 20.5 percent as of June.

The planning ministry in August estimated that poverty increased from 20.5 percent to 29.4 percent as a considerable number of people lost their income due to the Covid-19 fallout.

A Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS) survey on the impacts of the pandemic on livelihood released last month said 46.22 percent households wiped out savings and 11.26 percent had either sold property or kept mortgaged them.

The survey styled "Perception Survey on the Impacts of Livelihood", said some 43.11 percent had to rely on handouts from relatives and 17.93 percent on private borrowing in order to survive.

It further said 68.39 percent of the families went through financial problems from April to July with rickshaw/van-pullers and day labourers taking the worst hit.

In this situation, the ongoing price hike of food and essential items is adding salt to the injuries to hundreds of urban poor households, leading to a decrease in food consumption.

This has become a major concern for food and nutrition safety, experts fear.

"A huge number of people are at risk of nutrition insecurity as they had to compromise with nutrition intake," said noted economist Hossain Zillur Rahman.

He said the price hikes of essential commodities have already hit the urban poor harder than the rural ones.

Zillur, also the chairperson of Brac, said, "We are fortunate that our boro production was good. The government has to keep an eye on aman production and food pricing. If any of these two falters, the situation will be grave."

He suggested that the government should continue the special food assistance package for the poor.

The nutrition status of the country had improved due to a diversity in diet as the per capita consumption of meat, eggs, fish, fruits, vegetables and milk had increased.

But the Covid-19 pandemic has put that status under threat.

The BBS survey said some 63.42 percent of households had to cut consumption of quality foods during the April to July period.

Similarly, a World Bank study published last month said that 69 percent of households reduced their overall food consumption.

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