“We are trapped”- The unwritten stories of diversified occupations

By A.S.M. Nadim

The initiative of rapid surveys on the impact of Covid-19 was taken by the BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health at the beginning of April. As an employee of the school, I was quite excited to have received the opportunity to participate in this work. It is well-established by now that the realities of the pandemic and the resultant lockdown were different for different people. The worst affected were those involved in primary daily income based occupations such as day-laborers, rickshaw pullers, agricultural laborers, farmers, fishermen, masonry workers, brick kiln workers, and workers of informal sector. The survey allowed us to interact with members of all these occupations and more. Though we went to the field with some prescribed questions, we often let the discussions flow. This brought out realities that we would not have come across otherwise. Here, I discuss excerpts from some of the most interesting conversations I have had during the process with the hope that the decision-makers will be cognizant of these stories when it comes to making policies that affect the people of this country.

We, 72 of us workers, are living in a single room. How will we maintain distance of say 3 ft? We eat together in a place where food is prepared by two cooks. Besides, our toilet facilities are very limited, hope you know that. So our common space is congested. This is our life. You were talking about washing hands repeatedly with soap! We hardly wash our hands just before meals and sometimes it is without soap. We only wash our body properly when we take a bath. Otherwise we spend every second on a very tight schedule because we have been hired on a contract basis.

The above account is of one of my respondents who was working in a brick kiln. Many reportedly got trapped — as they were still working at the time the lockdown was imposed, they got stuck, unable to return home, even though their work has come to a grinding halt. For example, they live in Shyamnagar, Satkhira and now they are working in Mymensingh or Savar. Typical of most migrant workers, they had sent most of their earnings back home as soon as they received payment and now are left with little to sustain themselves. To top it all off, they are typically scheduled to be working in agricultural fields during this time of the year and so are continually losing income. While there are some illegal means to make their way home, it has become too expensive to afford those any longer. They are counting down the days until the lockdown is lifted.

I had an opportunity to speak to some fishermen during the course of the survey. Given their situation, maintaining social distancing amidst the lockdown was simply not an option — though they continue to engage in protective measures such as wearing masks and washing hands. They mentioned that sometimes the police harass them for catching fish and when they do catch fish, they cannot sell it. To add to their misery, while the cost of catching fish has gone up, the price that it fetches in the market has been declining due to insufficient customers. So, those who have borrowed money from others are especially suffering. Due to the lockdown, some fishermen could not catch fish and described their miserable conditions, and are desperately in need of support.

Similar challenges have been experienced by people involved in agriculture. Some of them have their own land and some work as agricultural laborers. Farmers who cultivate crops like corn, cucumber, pulses, et cetera, could not collect their crops from the field because of the lack of laborers and, in some cases, they could not even go outside of their homes. On the other hand, some of them were not able to collect crops because they had no option of selling their crops like cucumbers which began to rot within a few days. They could not take the preparations needed to distribute their products in the market. They were trapped from all sides. Agricultural laborers could not even move from one place to another which they always do during this season. They simply had no choice but to sit idly, and drown in their anxieties about their insecure livelihoods.

I also came across similar stories of hardship around my neighborhood. One day, I saw a rickshaw puller being hit with a thick stick by a traffic sergeant. My intention is not to blame them. However, the consequences of beating a rickshaw puller can be beyond description. Their medicine costs exceed an entire day’s earnings. These medicines are not even prescribed by doctors. They buy it from pharmacies in very small doses after first consulting with medicine sellers (for a maximum of two days) to relieve their pain.

Unfortunately, I heard similar accounts during this survey. The respondent (Rasulpur, Barishal) said: “Brother, there is a shortage of passengers in the street and we can hardly earn 100 tk or 120 tk, to help pass these hard times. If we have to spend more money behind medicine, is it fair? They are not providing us food and not letting us earn so what do they want? We die!” I found some rickshaw-pullers who were not pulling rickshaws as the higher authority prohibited them from doing so. The condition of drivers of Mahindra and battery-powered autos is also similar.

I also found some informal workers who are similarly suffering as the aforementioned groups. But the bitter truth is that they are the middle class. They cannot ask for even small favors from their next-door neighbors, and food is a long way off. One goldsmith said, “I work in a gold shop. Besides, I make silver ornaments sometimes according to customer orders. So my income totally depends on my regular work although it is not daily income. However, it is contractual. I do not have any personal assets either. The owner of the gold shop has no customers now. So, he does not care about me at present. I am not his salesman or monthly paid service-holder. I work away from the shop. So in the case of assistance, I am not visible to them. What will happen to us? In a crisis, the laborers can stand in line with beggars or even shove people around to get relief but what will we do? We are chained. If the government cannot arrange food for us, we will die.” A watch mechanic and an electrician also narrated almost the same story because their situations are so similar. They belong to the middle-class and do contractual work. They also said that they were unable to go push through slum people or laborers during relief distribution.

In reality, the depth of the wounds of Covid-19 is not what we are actually seeing, hearing, or even thinking. Sometimes it can even go beyond our imagination. We should look into the stories of those who are suffering, and learn from the first month of the lockdown in Bangladesh.

It should be appreciated that the Prime Minister has already announced financial assistance of Tk 72,750 crore in 5 packages to due to the heavy economic losses incurred amidst the pandemic. The package will provide Tk 5,000 crore at 5% interest to small and medium farmers whereas Tk 9,000 crore has been set aside for fertilizer subsidy, and another Tk 450 crore for agricultural mechanization, seeds and other fields. Moreover, loans for small and medium sector will cover the poultry and fisheries sectors. Another loan facility of Tk 20,000 crore (at 9% interest) will be provided to small and medium enterprises: the government will give 5% and the entrepreneurs will give the remaining 4%. However, the effectiveness of these packages will depend on properly identifying the beneficiaries and ultimately ensuring that the financial assistance reaches the vulnerable groups. According to renowned economist Dr. Qazi Kholiquzzaman, the sad reality is that “our history of using incentives in the past is not good. Those who need encouragement have not always benefited from it. Hence it is necessary to specify who the beneficiaries of the incentive will be. Otherwise, it could fall into the hands of middlemen.” Therefore, much more is yet to be done to ensure that financial support reaches those who have been hard-hit by the pandemic. Without this financial support, the double blow of the pandemic and hunger will be too much to bear.

A.S.M. Nadim is a Research Associate at BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University

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BRAC James P Grant School of Public Health

BRAC JPG School of Public Health, Bangladesh tackles global health challenges affecting disadvantaged communities through Education Training Research & Advocacy