The resilience of our people in the face of adversity, to emerge from the shadows of upheavals and shocks, has underpinned Bangladesh's remarkable growth narrative. Whether it was the political unrest and famine of the 70s, autocracy and devastating floods of the 80s or the present Covid-19 crisis, Bangladesh's characteristic resilience story has not gone unnoticed. But lesser known are the various facets of this defining feature that we have come to prize as a nation. What are the lengths that individuals, with varying capacities, are willing to go in order to be resilient? And how, if at all, are they coping during the Covid crisis?
Adopting a utilitarian approach by prioritizing the needs of the many has paved the way to tackle the dual health and economic crisis. Imposition of lockdowns, whose efficacy is debatable, has been one such measure. As 18th century theorists posit, coexisting in any society requires individuals to follow a social contract, whether explicitly or implicitly. Adhering to lockdowns during the pandemic is yet another form of conformity to this social contract. Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC) and Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) have been jointly conducting a multi-phased panel survey spanning the course of the pandemic. The study captures the trends from the impact of both the first and second lockdowns.
Findings from the study underscore the fact that any progress on the poverty agenda is easily reversible when unable to sustain shocks. While the first phase of the telephonic survey captured the massive income drop and identified the emerging band of 'new poor', the second highlighted the case of reverse migration due to high expenditure burdens and the fragile economic recovery. But this recovery has not continued unhindered. The second lockdown has disrupted livelihoods and thrown households into further precarity. The upward trend in recovery, imbued with insecurity and uncertainty, has reversed once more.
Urban slums at a greater disadvantage
The fourth round of the rapid response research, conducted shortly after the second lockdown, surveyed over 4,800 households in urban slums and rural Bangladesh. It found that urban slums are at a stark disadvantage, and almost doubly impacted compared to rural. Poverty rose by 22 percentage points in urban slum areas and 10 percentage points in rural. In addition, the unemployment rate in urban slums has more than doubled compared to pre-Covid levels. Income in urban slums has dropped by 18% and in rural areas by 15% since March of last year and remains 23% below pre-pandemic levels overall, eighteen months into the crisis. Recovery reversal has also been greater in urban slums (30%) than in rural (12%).
Livelihood and Expenditure Dynamics
While the numbers on the recovery trend project a picture of households slowly returning to their previous income levels, they do not reveal the realities driving this recovery. Besides looking at the income levels, we need to consider the risks attached to each occupation and people's ability to transition between jobs. Are households employing more of their members in income generating activities, including children? Are individuals switching to poorer skilled jobs or taking up multiple low-skilled jobs to cope? Or are they cutting down on the number of meals and reducing their diet diversity? Unpacking these will give us a clearer insight to the resilience story.
Vulnerability of informal occupations persisted across all four rounds of the PPRC-BIGD survey. For example, second round survey findings show household help to be the worst hit occupation, with 54% maids becoming and remaining unemployed, and only 4.96% being to switch to other jobs. As the fear associated with the virus slowly dissipated, there has been some demand-driven income recovery as housemaids have been called back to work. Yet, in August 2021, around 35% of this group were not in any income generating activity.
A deeper concern lies in the 'de-skilling' of labour. The Covid induced economic crisis is resulting in vulnerable occupational shifts to lower skilled jobs. Only 35% of skilled labour have remained in some forms of skilled job, whereas 17% have switched to unskilled labour and 15% are unemployed. Families have also engaged their school-going children in employment, with 8.7% of school going boys and 2% of school going girls engaged in some forms of income generation in August 2021.
Food insecurity continues to be prevalent: around 7% of households skipped meals between March and August 2021. Dietary diversity has also worsened as people are choosing to consume a lower variety of food, cutting down on meat, milk and fruits. While these measures are helping people cope, these nutritional deficits may pose longer term consequences on people's health and well-being, especially on that of children.
The case of reverse migration
Low-income families relying on savings and consumption reduction as coping mechanisms during the early days of the pandemic soon found it difficult to keep up as the pandemic persisted. Over the course of the eighteen months, around 28% people migrated from urban slum areas. Expenditure burdens contributed largely to this phenomenon of reverse migration, as the cost of availing health services, transport, house rent, and utility costs piled up, becoming increasingly expensive for a segment of society, compelling them to return to rural areas where the expected gain is more than in urban areas. Only 6% of people had left cities in April 2020, according to the second-round survey findings. Between April and June 2020, this increased by around 7.3% and for Dhaka alone stood at 15.6%. Fast forwarding to August 2021, of the 28%, around 18% have returned to the cities whereas 10% have stayed back.
Poverty dynamics: Transient or a trap?
Covid-19 has hit families across all low-income categories - extreme poor, moderate poor, non-poor. Early in the pandemic, the PPRC-BIGD study identified a new category of poor, termed as 'new poor'. This band of vulnerable non-poor, just above the poverty line, experienced downward mobility and slipped into poverty directly as a consequence of the Covid crisis. But the new poor, although mostly urban dwellers, are not a homogenous group. They include those in informal occupations such as rickshaw pullers, security guards, maids, transport workers as well as salaried workers and school teachers.
While the percentage of new poor was 22.9% in April 2020, it fell to 14.75% in March 2021. But the new poor phenomenon has not been a transient one, despite initially appearing so. Following the second lockdown, in August 2021, we see that this has risen to 19.54%. In absolute terms, the total number of new poor stands at 32.4 million.
Even as infection rates fall (the article was written before the fresh surge of infection from late last year) and the economy recovers, the vulnerable non-poor seem to be caught in a trap. In the eighteen months of the pandemic, around 35% of the pre-Covid vulnerable non-poor have been in poverty throughout, thus termed as chronic poor. More than half (56%) are churning or occasionally poor, meaning they have been transitioning into and out of poverty. Only 8% of the pre-Covid vulnerable non-poor have remained so throughout the pandemic.
Emerging insights from the PPRC-BIGD panel survey depicts not the story of resilience, but one of distress resilience. It tells the story of the populations in distress trying to either bounce back or hold their ground in the face of the crises posed by the pandemic. Increased number of earners yet mounting debt and eroded financial capacity, token social protection support, compromised nutrition to meet expenditure burdens are all fragments of the distressed reality. And this reality needs to be addressed urgently.
Policy messages from the PPRC-BIGD study recommend a national consultation to pool the learnings from both lockdowns to ensure a smooth recovery in case of future disruptions due to further waves of infection. A Covid-19 management strategy combing the health, economic and administrative policy strands will be vital to combat future disruptions. Reviewing macroeconomic policies can keep expenditure burdens in check, especially in the time of the recent price hikes. Designing a well-targeted, scaled up urban social protection program would be key in addressing the urban disadvantage and prioritizing urban slum dwellers in the recovery process.
Namira Shameem is an undergraduate student at the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka and Research Executive at Power and Participation Research Centre (PPRC). She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.