Three recent studies propose various strategies that government could have adopted, and still can, to contain the spread of Covid-19 infection and keep the economy alive at the same time
On May 27, the government announced it would reopen the economy after a 65-day general holiday imposed to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. Three days later, offices reopened on a limited scale and vehicles, including public transport, were back on the streets.
Infections and deaths also went up alarmingly. A simple number tells the story – during the more than two-month holiday we had more than 44,500 infections and 605 deaths. Ever since the holidays were lifted, we have had nearly 169,000 infections 2,151 deaths, as of Thursday.
A lot has already been said about the government's poor handling of the lockdown – the factories reopening saga and calling it a holiday instead of lockdown – as well as the decision to withdraw the lockdown at a time when the infection rates were hitting their peak.
Ever since, the government has been imposing area-wise lockdowns after identifying various areas with a high infection rate. The success of this endeavour has also come under question as it would appear that both East Rajazar and Ward 41 of Wari – the two areas in Dhaka that were under zonal lockdown for 21 days – also experienced a spike in infections despite being closed off.
It is clear that the government's strategies so far have failed to produce satisfactory outcomes. Therefore, it begs the question: Could anything have been done differently? Were there options where we could have still kept the country under lockdown and found ways to lessen its negative economic impact?
What do we do in the future if there is another spike in infections?
These are the questions that a number of studies in recent months have been exploring.
According to a research by LightCastle Partners could have opted for a sector-wise reopening of the economy. The study, titled "Reopening the Economy: Strategies and Way Forward for Bangladesh," said sector-wise reopening can be done based on assessments from a socio-economic viewpoint.
According to the research, before reopening the economy, the government should have taken into consideration each sectors' contribution to the GDP, employment and financial demographic. How vital is the sector to the economy? How many people does it employ? is it export-oriented or time-sensitive? These are the questions that need to be answered.
For example, the RMG sector should be opened, as it is the highest contributor to the GDP and the livelihoods of thousands of people are dependent on the sector. Critical sectors like healthcare and agriculture should be kept open as one is critical in the current circumstances and the other produces perishable goods.
"While we cannot put the country under total lockdown like the developed nations, we could have however adopted other measures they took while reopening their economies," said Farah Hamud Khan, senior business consultant and project manager at LightCastle Partners.
The sectors which can adopt to remote working, that have less possibilities of social distancing (restaurants and theatres), and pose more risk to public health, should remain closed till the transmission slows, according to the study.
The University of Liberal Arts (ULAB) put forward a similar suggestion of sector-wise reopening.
In a study titled "Re-opening the Bangladesh Economy: Search for a Framework," the researchers – Ahsan Senan, Oliur Rahman, Sajid Amit and Imran Rahman - introduced a three-phase reopening strategy after talking to 100 Bangladeshi industrialists, CEOs, NGO leaders, start-up founders, economists, and analysts.
Sajid, associate professor and director of the Center for Enterprise and Society at ULAB, said the assessment can be based on how critical the sectors are to the economy and how susceptible they are to Covid-19 transmission risks.
Sectors that are vital to the economy but carry high transmission risk can be termed "Alert Sectors," (RMG, Bank etc) and those that are important but pose relatively less risk are "Allow Sectors (grocery, pharmaceuticals etc)."
The sectors that are not immediately critical to economic growth, but are critical in other respects, and have low risks of transmission are "Advance Sectors (e-commerce)." Finally, sectors that are low-priority, economically speaking, and high-risk are the "Avoid Sectors (hotels, malls restaurants etc)," the study added.
The paper proposed that in the first phase of reopening, Alert, Advance, and Allow sectors should be permitted to operate, with Alert sectors being more vigilant and the other two operating as usual.
In the second phase, once the spread of the disease is under control, Avoid Sectors may be allowed to fully open, with three other sectors already operating. In the third phase, when the pandemic is over, the economy can fully reopen and return to the pre-Covid-19 days.
According to the model devised by Sajid Amit and his team, many sectors will remain closed in the first and second-phase to allow health experts to work on curbing the virus transmission risks.
Talking to The Business Standard, Sajid Amit said "During the time of coronavirus, the government should incentivise the Advance sector or e-commerce to ensure their growth. This sector is beyond the purview of the crisis and has been playing a key role since the pandemic hit us. Therefore, incentivising this sector will yield benefits for the economy, because the businesses will grow, creating more jobs,".
"It is very important that we focus on complying with the health protocols at every institute," he said adding that as businesses have reopened, they should take charge and ensure that all the health guidelines are diligently followed.
Both proposals of LightCastle and ULab have one caveat in that it does not adequately address the economic fallout for the sectors that will remain closed, beyond providing them with government support.
Dr Rajiv Chowdhury, a senior global health epidemiologist at Cambridge University, proposes a different approach.
In his study, titled "Long‑term Strategies to Control Covid‑19 in Low and Middle‑income Countries: An Options Overview of Community‑based, Non‑pharmacological Interventions," Rajiv proposed three community-based non-pharmacological strategies for low and middle-income countries, aiming to strike a balance between health protection and preventing economic collapse. They include sustained mitigation, zonal lockdown, and rolling lockdown (dynamic measures).
According to him, as sustained mitigation, an immediate strict lockdown at a national level is necessary in Bangladesh to curb the virus. The duration of the lockdown can be decided by the policymakers but it has to be a strict one like the other countries.
"If people stay indoors, the virus transmission will go down automatically," he told The Business Standard.
He said that once the proper lockdown period has expired, the government can open up the economy and monitor the transmission rates.
"If the government sees that the transmission rates are shooting up at some parts of the country, they can go for a local or zonal lockdown in those hotspots," he said, adding that a rolling lockdown can continue in some places if required.
The duration and frequency of these rolling lockdowns, and the length of in-between relaxed period, can also be set based on local circumstances and infection growth rates. In an earlier study titled "Dynamic Interventions to Control Covid-19 Pandemic: A Multivariate Prediction Modelling Study Comparing 16 Worldwide Countries," the epidemiologist claimed that a 50-day strict lockdown and 30-day reopening for the next 18 months can curb the virus.
However, later he said that it will not be necessary if the new measures are adopted and implemented properly. Besides, he also said that softer measures like spreading awareness, wearing a mask and sanitising hands will only work once the transmission level is low.
He concluded by saying that it is crucial that the selection of a suitable, "context-specific" strategy is based on some key considerations, including local epidemic growth rate, existing health infrastructure (to survey, test, and treat, at scale), social and economic costs, and a carefully devised plan to implement and sustain the measures.