When Bangladesh followed the world and enforced a countrywide shutdown to tame the first wave of coronavirus 12 months ago, people accepted it as it was a "life first" approach.
The measures, though not as strict as those enforced in most other countries of the world, emptied the roads and shuttered offices, businesses, factories and schools, putting life to almost a pause for more than two months until some restrictions were relaxed.
But a much softer approach this time has given rise to protests and public discontents, because livelihoods come first for the people who are reeling from last year's shock of lost income.
This time, the lockdown rules made by the government are selective and aimed at saving both the economy and people's lives. Movements of mass transports remain suspended, shops and markets are shuttered but factories, industries and public and private offices remain open.
The roads show the outcomes of the rules with a large number of cars, rickshaws and other modes of vehicles choking the city streets. People are out and about going on with their lives. This relaxed nature of lockdown has prompted small business owners to come out in protest against the closure of their shops.
The protest by the small businesses seems rational if one considers the economic hardship they had to suffer during the shutdown last year. They are fearing huge economic losses again as they are forced to shutter their businesses during the weeklong lockdown at a time when they were hoping to recover from last year's shock by selling goods ahead of Pahela Baishakh and Eid.
They were left to fend for themselves. They have not been offered any financial assistance to compensate for the loss of income resulting from the fresh lockdown.
In advanced economies, low income people and daily wage earners as well as small businesses were given monetary assistance to help them tide over the lockdown last year.
The Bangladesh government also offered stimulus and cash aid last year, although small businesses got little. This time there was no such offer before the enforcement of the lockdown.
Health experts and economists have critcised the half-hearted lockdown rules that they say are against the main objective of the non-pharmaceutical measure.
Enforcing a lockdown confining some people indoors while keeping avenues open for infections will just end up in harming the economy, feels economist Zahid Hussain, expressing his opinion in the media.
"Measures like lockdown cannot be effective in Bangladesh. It's a reality. Lockdown, if strictly enforced, will hit the livelihood of those who live from hand to mouth," the former lead economist of the World Bank's Dhaka office points out.
"Some restrictions will affect day-labourers, and employees in salons, restaurants and transports, because people will stop taking their services in the first place," Zahid says, as he refers to the loss of livelihoods of people in the informal sector, who make up the majority in employment.
Small businesses will be in danger, he warns.
Small and medium businesses were the worst hit by the first shutdown measures enforced in March 2020 and very few of them could access the stimulus loan offered by the government.
Unprotected informal sector
SMEs are the biggest employers in the informal sectors, but those jobs are not protected against vulnerabilities. Shutdown of shops, markets, transports, restaurants and businesses of all sorts rendered millions of people jobless overnight when Bangladesh went into its first shutdown last year. Unemployment benefit is not there and whatever cash support was announced by the government for lost jobs went to very few of the workers because there is no database of workforce in the informal sector.
Local think tank South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (Sanem) said in a previous survey that the shutdown induced by Covid-19 took away 60 lakh jobs in Bangladesh. The employment loss pushed more than 20% of people into poverty afresh.
The World Bank put the number of new poor people at 1.65 crore from Covid-19, 50 lakh of them falling into extreme poverty.
Hotel workers, who were among the worst victims of job loss, did not get the Tk2,500 aid per head announced by the government in June 2020, said the association of hotel workers.
Restrictions imposed this time may cost the job of most of the sector's 30 lakh workers, it said in a statement on Sunday, urging the labour ministry to protect their jobs and give each restaurant worker Tk10,000 a month in case eateries are closed for the pandemic.
Despite the harsh impact on life and income of the marginal people, the shutdown, however lacklustre it was, had helped flatten the virus infection curve until late last month.
Globally, the non-pharmaceutical measures, backed by improved health care, helped the world keep Covid-19 deaths to 30 lakh or 0.04% of the world population, compared to four crore people, or 2.1% of the global population, from the Spanish flu a century back.
But the infection has taken a dangerous turn in Bangladesh like many other countries in Asia, Europe and America, forcing further lockdowns.
Shutdowns met with protests globally
Return of the restrictive measures met protests in developed countries, with demonstrators taking to the streets in several European cities as authorities tried to confront a third coronavirus wave.
A Dutch court suspended lockdown measures as it found no emergency situation as cited by the government. From Switzerland, Ireland to Germany and Canada, people expressed their anger against restrictions on life and movements.
But their concerns are quite different from those in Bangladesh – they are denouncing curbs on freedom while people here want that their jobs and businesses are protected.
Small and medium businessmen in Dhaka, Chattogram and other major cities and towns took to the streets, demanding that shops are allowed to stay open ahead of two major festivals – Pahela Baishakh and Eid-ul-Fitr.
Protesters in Canada also trashed the experts' much-repeated calls for restrictions for flattening the curve.
Experts in Bangladesh also want strict lockdowns, as the country recorded the highest-ever single day Covid-19 cases and deaths amid an alarming surge in infections in recent weeks.
Yesterday, 7,213 new Covid-19 cases and 66 more deaths from the virus were reported in the country, prompting health experts to call for a complete lockdown for two weeks – a period they fear to be critical.
"Lockdown means everything will be closed. Only some emergency services, drug stores and certain markets can remain open," Prof Muzaherul Huq, a former adviser to the World Health Organization, told news agency UNB.
Virologist Prof Nazrul Islam said partial lockdown will be "only a waste of energy, loss of money".
Public health expert MH Chowdhury Lenin called for a complete lockdown for 14 days to slow the virus transmission.
But enforcing harsher measures further looks increasingly impossible given the impacts on people's movement and livelihoods as offices and factories remained open, while transports remained shut, creating a "catch 22" situation for the government.
The government yesterday decided to allow bus services to resume in Dhaka and other city corporation areas from today.
"Buses will run from 6am to 6pm within the cities," Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader said.
Meanwhile, protests by small businessmen grew even bigger.
Biggest business season at risk
With Pahela Baishakh just a week ahead, each day's closure means a huge loss for retailers. Closure of business means crores in taka they invested would be at stake and jobs of several lakh employees would be at risk.
Public transports remained off the road for the second straight day while public and private offices remained open, leaving employees, frontline health service workers and commuters in utter misery.
Ride-sharing bikes could be a saviour, but that service too came under restriction. Bikers also joined the street protests in Dhaka.
According to a survey on private commercial mechanised and non-mechanised land and water transport by the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), about 1.39 lakh people are engaged in apps-based bikes and car services, who add Tk8,342 crore as value to the economy annually.
Transport sector, both mechanised and non-mechanised put together, employs 29 lakh people in 24 lakh vehicles for passengers, says the BBS' latest survey.
According to a 2017 BBS workforce survey, retail and wholesale businesses involve 87 lakh people while hotels, restaurants and tourism sector employ about one crore people. Informal sectors account for 85% of the workforce.
A strict lockdown now means putting these people with little or no income.
Bitter experience of the past has brought the livelihood concerns of the vast majority to the fore; fresh lockdown measures are seen as a fresh blow to the low-income people, making them more desperate this time, says Dr Fahmida Khatun, executive director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD).
"If a complete lockdown is enforced, the government has to take responsibility for the livelihoods of the poor. Food, cash aid must be delivered to the extreme poor at the earliest," she told TBS yesterday, citing that the government's scheme to give cash aid to 50 lakh people was not a cent percent success last time.
Dr Sayema Haque Bidisha, professor of economics at Dhaka University, said, "Low-income people exhausted their savings during the last lockdown. Small entrepreneurs pinned their hopes on this festival season for a turnaround. Complying with yet another lockdown is a hard choice for them."
She favoured a tougher effective lockdown for a short period with food supports for the poor and utility bill waiver and rental supports for small businesses.