What should be our development strategies during Covid?
Seeing the varying degrees of Covid that the world has experienced over the last one and a half years, we can safely assume that this pandemic is here to stay.
The experiences of different countries as well as data from scientific research also support this idea. Since we are seeing different variants of the coronavirus as well—such as the widespread and more lethal Delta variant—there is no guarantee that even more lethal variants would not emerge in the future. In the earlier days of the pandemic, we thought it would be gone within a year or two, and we would probably be able to go back to what we call the "pre-Covid situation", and we would have something like a "post-Covid situation".
Given the circumstances, however, it seems there will probably be no post-Covid situation, at least not in the way we had expected. The disease will likely continue to exist at varying degrees across the world. Therefore, we need to be prepared to cope with the situation keeping that in mind. We also need to revisit our development strategies accordingly.
But what steps should be considered to achieve that?
We can start with developing some protocols for running economic activities amid Covid. These protocols should involve two major segments. One is sector-specific—how different sectors can function in the middle of a pandemic. The sector-specific protocol would demonstrate that the set of guidelines that is applicable for a manufacturing company might not be equally effective for a service-oriented firm. For example, the protocol for running a restaurant would be different from that of running a ready-made garment factory.
The other segment of protocols should be area-specific—depending on population size and the types and intensity of economic activities. For example, the protocols for Dhaka would be different from the ones for Rangpur, because the type and intensity of economic activities are different in these two regions.
In order to develop sector-specific and area-specific development strategies, the government should involve the major stakeholders—especially the private sector—representatives from different economic fields, the sectors' experts, and the experts on public health. Those responsible for developing these protocols should also take into account the global experience.
Unfortunately, we have yet to see any initiative from the government to develop such protocols. Over the last one and a half years, we have seen both deterioration and improvement of the Covid situation. The initiatives or steps taken so far to tackle the pandemic have been on an ad hoc basis. We saw that the government was sometimes forced to impose lockdown measures. However, due to weak enforcement capacity, the restrictions were far from effectively executed. The poor implementation of lockdown measures also generated large-scale economic and social losses. A proper assessment of the management of the Covid situation is, therefore, needed to develop the protocols for the coming days.
Covid has caused some profound economic and social shocks and losses. The major sectors of the economy, in particular the micro, small and medium enterprises, have suffered quite a lot—so much so that a number of micro and small enterprises had to shut down permanently, and many more may follow. At the same time, we have also observed some deep social losses in terms of poverty and labour market turmoil. We are witnessing large-scale disruptions in the education and healthcare sectors.
In the case of economic recovery, two areas need urgent attention. One of them is vaccination. Without an effective vaccination programme, we can't keep Covid under control. The vaccination campaign needs to be stronger, and the uncertainties related to it must be dealt with. The second issue is stimulus packages. There has been no proper assessment of the effectiveness of stimulus packages. Whether these packages reached the affected industries properly or not must be evaluated. Some analyses done by the South Asian Network for Economic Remodeling (Sanem), through quarterly surveys of business firms, reveal that although micro and small enterprises are the most affected sectors, a large part of them have remained outside of the benefit of the stimulus packages. Also, there are widespread systemic challenges in terms of implementing the stimulus packages. The management of these packages has to be effective and transparent, and the institutional deficiencies need to be removed. There should also be a proper monitoring mechanism for the implementation of these stimulus packages.
Since the onset of Covid, educational institutions have remained closed, and we have not seen any effective work plan to be able to reopen them in the midst of Covid. A somewhat functional online education system and some distance learning processes have been in place. But due to various reasons—especially the high poverty rate, low access to the online learning platforms, and many other challenges—many students have not been able to participate in the online education or distant learning processes effectively. As a result, there are high chances of a significant part of the young generation falling out of the education system, as dropout rates at primary and secondary levels and the incidence of early marriage of girls have escalated during the crisis. Findings from some recent surveys by Sanem and other research organisations confirm these situations. Therefore, there is a need for an effective recovery plan for the education sector. The recovery plan must consider running the education system while keeping in mind that Covid is here to stay for long.
The healthcare sector was in deep trouble even before Covid-19 struck Bangladesh, because of the abysmally low public spending on the sector amid widespread institutional deficiencies in terms of corruption and poor management. Covid intensified these problems. Therefore, the health sector needs major overhauling and institutional reform to combat the long-lasting challenges.
As we acknowledge and understand that there is no getting rid of Covid anytime soon, we can re-think different planning processes for economic and social recoveries. We must move away from the conventional planning processes to confront new challenges and situations. The new planning process will require innovative approaches, a lot of effort from the government, and critical institutional reforms, especially addressing the corruption and institutional deficiencies in a more rigorous way. As this planning process must involve the major stakeholders, we need to move away from the top-down approach and adopt a bottom-up approach to combat the crises.
Selim Raihan is executive director of the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (Sanem).