By Vatican News
Since the start of a nationwide shutdown in Bangladesh on March 26, the situation of thousands of poor people including ethnic communities, especially in remote areas, has worsened. For many it has been a question of survival, with food security growing even more precarious. Many have not been able to obtain food aid from state-run schemes.
Government officials say Bangladesh has good food production and enough food stock, so a food crisis due to the pandemic is unlikely.
However, according to noted economist Mirza Azizul Islam, with the loss of income and declining purchasing power, large numbers of people cannot avail of the available food.
“Many people have lost their source of earning and become temporarily jobless. So, it is the main challenge to ensure food for them by widening social safety net programmes,” Islam told Dhaka Tribune newspaper.
Shamsul Alam, a member of the General Economy Department at the state-run Planning Commission, agreed that millions risk slipping into poverty due to Covid-19. “We fear more than four million will become extremely poor, and we need to think about how to support them in the coming days,” Alam told UCA News.
In April, a leading economist from the World Bank warned that Covid-19 will throw some 50 million into poverty in Bangladesh.
In a report on June 7, the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Bangladeshi think tank, said overall poverty has risen by 10 percent and could return to 40 percent of 15 years ago.
The latest study by the state-run Bureau of Statistics showed the level of poverty was 24 percent in 2016.
“Due to Covid-19, the number of jobless people has increased drastically and income has fallen significantly. The poverty rate is growing fast,” Mustafizur Rahman, a fellow of the CPD, told UCA News.
Poverty is also most likely to hit hard the millions in Bangladesh who are already victims of food insecurity.
About a quarter of Bangladesh’s more than 160 million people are already facing food insecurity. Some 11 million suffer from chronic hunger, while one in three children are afflicted by stunted growth due to acute malnutrition, according to the World Food Programme.
There are many heart-rending stories of people slipping into poverty due to the pandemic.
Maungchanu Tripura, a farmer, has been familiar with poverty and hunger for years, but the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the plight of his family. The 54-year old ethnic Catholic is a father of four in a remote village in the Lama area of hilly, forested Bandarban district in southeast Bangladesh.
He earns his livelihood selling rice, arum, mango and guavas, which he grows in his one-acre ancestral plot. Two of his daughters go to school.
Stories of pain
“During the rainy season, often crops are destroyed due to flooding and landslides. People are forced to skip meals and survive with what they can find in the forests,” Tripura told UCA News.
“This is the fruit season but we are at a big loss. Markets are closed and traders are few,” he lamented, adding prices are low and they are “struggling to survive”.
Tripura received no food or cash support during the crisis except for 1,600 takas (US$19) from Catholic charity Caritas Chittagong. “People like us really don’t have much of an option in times of crisis. The government needs to assist us so that we can overcome dire conditions,” he added.
Mojnu Sarkar, 35, a Muslim father of two, was a machine operator at a machine tools factory in Dinajpur district until March. He used to support his family with a monthly wage of 7,000 takas.
“There is no indication if and when the factory will start again or whether I will have a job. We have been suffering badly since I returned home,” Sarkar told UCA News.
The family received 10kg of rice and 2,000 taka cash from local aid groups, which ran out fast. Sarkar borrowed 10,000 takas from neighbours to survive.
“If we don’t get support from the government and NGOs, and I remain unemployed, my family will be starving soon, and I will be under severe pressure to pay back the loan,” he lamented.
Caritas takes on food security
Caritas runs seven food security projects that cover all of Bangladesh. In Chittagong, three projects directly related to food security cover about 20,000 people.
“It is essential to ensure food aid to needy people at a time of crisis, but most important is to ensure their food security permanently,” said James Gomes, Caritas Chittagong regional director.
“People on the hills are among the most highly food-insecure communities, and their condition has worsened during the pandemic. Life here is largely dependent on agriculture, and people live on selling their produce twice a week,” Gomes told UCA News.
“Their condition will worsen further if nature turns hostile during the rainy season and triggers flooding and landslides.”
Caritas has been supporting farmers with training to produce better crops and offering improved seeds. Where necessary, it provides cash incentives, he explained, adding that people on the hills and in other remote areas can overcome poverty and hunger with formal education, technical training and savings.
“Education and training can help get better crop yields, technical training enables them to get alternative employment, and a savings mentality is a big support in times of need. We have been prioritizing such initiatives in our projects to make them sustainable,” Gomes said. (Source: UCA News)