Course:ANTH302A/2020/Bangladesh

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Map of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh based on district. Source of photo: Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, April 2020.

Introduction

Bangladesh, or officially known as the People's Republic of Bangladesh, is a country situated in South Asia that has been highly affected by the recent worldwide COVID-19 outbreak. The virus was confirmed to have spread to Bangladesh in as early as March 2020. According to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, Bangladesh is the third most affected country in South Asia, after India and Pakistan.[1] As of August 17th, 2020, the country has reported over 280,000 cases of COVID-19 with a death toll of 3,694.[2] The pandemic continues to have a multidimensional impact on the country, creating and exacerbating social, economic, political and environmental issues.

As of yet, there are no approved vaccines for the disease, thus non-therapeutic interventions are being implemented worldwide to control its spread. In response to the emergence of COVID-19, Bangladesh has followed suit: reducing international flights, closing all non-essential business, and enforcing social distancing regulations.[3] However, social distancing protocols are hard to maintain in a densely populated country. As a lower to middle income country, the country faces numerous limitations to restrict the virus' spread and to mitigate its impact on citizens.[3] Bangladesh's response to the pandemic continues to be challenged by a variety of factors, including inaccurate or misleading information provided by the government, political leaders, NGOs and religious institutions.[4] Limited medical resources make it difficult for the country to contain the virus and continue to calculate accurate statistics, causing a sense of uncertainty and inevitably, social anxiety.[5]

This page is dedicated to analyzing the impact of COVID-19 within Bangladesh using anthropological approaches. Its aim is to compile Bangladeshi experiences and investigate the effects of the virus; this requires utilizing intersectionality within different fields of research to make an accurate evaluation. This page will explore the economic challenges for Bangladeshi citizens more generally while also examining the impact on textile industry workers specifically. Other ethnographic contexts that will be explored include the pandemic’s impact on flood victims and incidents of domestic violence. The page will also emphasize the through-line of inequality and its role in the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, particularly in the contexts of gender inequality, inequality for Rohingya refugees, and inequality for Indigenous peoples. The variegated realities of the pandemic amassed within a single country highlights how much value this work will place on contextualized evidence to demonstrate the multi-faceted nature of this disaster.

The Economic Impact of COVID-19 in Bangladesh

By Amanda Leung

Workers in a garment factory in Bangladesh. Many workers in the garment industry have lost their jobs in recent months due to the circumstances created by the pandemic. [6]

Like other countries, in Bangladesh, the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis came with an alarming economic outlook. The pandemic has highlighted the fragilities in the financial sector bringing attention to three main avenues: the drop in domestic activity, the decline in exports of ready-made garments, and the fall in remittances from Bangladeshis living abroad.[7] Though many of the long term economic impacts of the pandemic are not yet observable, statistics show the overall decline in the economy since the beginning of the pandemic. Up until the crisis, the economy had been growing close to 7 percent a year on average over the past decade. However, growth is now expected to decelerate by around 6 percent for the rest of the year due to broader disruptions caused by COVID-19.[7] In the absence of mitigation measures and financial aid, poverty levels are expected to increase significantly. The national poverty is forecasted to increase by 25.13 percent, claimed by Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS).[8] Needless to say, policymakers and government officials now find themselves in uncharted territory and must come up with innovative solutions to help the multiple channels affected by the pandemic.

While highlighting the perils for Bangladesh’s current economic situation, this section will be evaluating the economic circumstances while taking a similar approach to Jock Stirrat’s article titled “Competitive Humanitarianism: Relief and the Tsunami in Sri Lanka.”[9] It will be discussing the nature of the economic impact and critically examine the efforts the Bangladeshi government must take to ensure economic revival.

Bangladeshi Exports and the Textile Industry

According to statistics, economic growth is expected to decelerated to 3 percent by the end of the 2020 fiscal year.[10] Many factors caused by COVID-19 have contributed to this decline such as the decrease in global trade and deteriorating external competitiveness which have lowered exports level by approximately 5.8 percent.[10] In all of South Asia, supply chains have been disrupted, consumer and investor trends have deteriorated, and international capital is being withdrawn.[10] In Bangladesh, the demand for ready-made garments had decreased and has significantly affected the export levels. Indeed, 81 percent of total exports come from the textile and garment sector.[10] In comparison to the other parts of South Asia, the Bangladeshi economy is less reliant on the tourism industry. As discussed in Michele Ruth Gamburd’s article on business recovery in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami, the seismic wave had visibly affected the tourism industry. Consequently, the damage to the tourism infrastructure heavily affected the Sri Lankan economy.[11] Likewise, in Bangladesh, the damage done by the virus to the garment industry has affected the labour market and the overall economy. Thus, the decline in national and global demand for manufactured goods, particularly in the garment sector, is expected to deepen poverty levels . On a grandeur scale, as global chains are disrupted, countries may look for production methods that are less dependent on foreign workers. Ergo, the reduced external demand for manufacturing exports threatens the country’s GDP, employment rates and overall livelihoods.

Economic Remittance- The Steep Downturn

In the first half of the 2020 fiscal year (July 2019- December 2019), declining exports which caused an increase in trade deficit were offset by a 25.5 percent growth in remittance inflows.[10] However, while remittance levels were higher at the start of the fiscal year, the uncertainties related to COVID-19 are now likely to create disruption in remittance rates. In March, remittance levels dropped by 12% and in April by 25%. [6] Estimates suggest that over 1.4 million migrant workers worldwide have either returned or are on their way back home due to job losses.[6]

Typically the sharp drop in remittance levels would be considered atypical, as normally remittance rates are countercyclical. Meaning, in the case of a crisis in their home country, migrants tend to send more money home to support their families. However, given the nature of this pandemic and its global scale, migrant workers face more difficulties in keeping their jobs due to the sudden decrease in labour needs worldwide. In the long run, the decrease in remittance levels could severely affect the Bangladeshi economy as remittance sent by international migrants worldwide are an important source of external finance and foreign exchange.[10]

Deepening Inequality

While economic forecast are great tools to predict population needs, they only denote part of the story, as they show only the average impacts.[10]Indeed, COVID-19 will have affected a variety of socio-economic groups with different severity; however, those living in high-density slum and urban areas and refugee camps are particularly vulnerable.[10]The dire economic forecast of South Asia will be much harsher on poorer communities than on the more affluent people. These individuals are more likely to become infected by the virus, as it is difficult to practice precautionary measures such as social distancing and regular hand washing. Moreover, these individuals have limited access to health care.

Analysis shows that poorer individuals are more likely to experience job loss and are at a greater risk of food insecurity. Additionally, in tandem with remittance decreases, domestic migrant workers who had escaped rural poverty through finding work in cities are forced back into rural poverty.[10]Therefore, while the economy goes down, poverty rates are going up making it crucial for the Bangladeshi government to set in place measures of financial aid.

Public Banks and Governmental Efforts

Against the backdrop of the pandemic, the Bangladeshi government has set in place measures to mitigate further economic impact caused by the virus such as introducing relief packages, and providing a delay in payments on taxes, rent, utilities and debt service. Moreover, on an economic scale, on March 25th, the Prime Minister had announced a preliminary COVID-19 fiscal scale stimulus of $600 million (equivalent to 0.2% of GDP) to scale up existing social protection schemes and support the payrolls of the manufacturing sector. On April 4th the plan was enhanced significantly to $8.5 billion (equivalent to 2.5% of GDP).[12]

The aid provided by public banks will also play a crucial role in economic recovery for the country. In Bangladesh, commercial banks and especially non-commercial banks are more prevalent in rural areas. The presence of public banks in these areas provides opportunities to broaden financial inclusion.[10] Indeed, public banks have the ability to support the most vulnerable; however, they have held controversial positions in terms of economic development. Therefore, to see the benefits of public banks and mitigate controversy, public banks must operate in a system of transparency.

Though economic recovery remains an important part of the country’s post-pandemic revival, other resources remain just as crucial and work in tandem with the economy. Looking at Nepal’s response after their devastating earthquake of 2015, mental health initiatives, as denoted by Aidan Seale-Feldman and Nawaraj Upadhaya in their article on mental health after the Nepali earthquake, are critical systems which will aid in alleviating the trauma caused by the pandemic. However, these wellness initiatives need governmental backing and financial support.[13]

Therefore, while discussing the economic impact of COVID-19 often rests in monetary values, governmental efforts should look to approach economic recovery in a more holistic manner, taking into account the effects of job losses, the deepening social inequalities, and the mental state of the country.

How has the COVID19 Pandemic affected Bangladeshi Garment Factory Workers?

Garment workers protest at a local factory, which is implicated for not paying their workers wages for the past 5 months.[14]

By Ambra Agricola

The garment industry in Bangladesh is the second largest worldwide, and employs more than four million workers. This sector accounts for more than 80 percent of the country’s international exports, and has been deemed “essential” by its government officials. [15] Garment making is stitched into the very fabric of Bangladeshi life. However, the notion of "normal life" has recently been challenged in Bangladesh and around the world alike due to the Coronavirus pandemic. While the virus is a health crisis, its impact is visible in a variety of areas that affect individuals in their day-to-day lives. One of the most notable challenges is associated with economic decline; as a result of a decrease in demand for consumer products, the international community is suffering.

Several billion dollar companies (including reputable brands such as Adidas, Gap, JCPenny, Kohl's, Primark etc.) have been noted for cancellation of orders from several Bangladeshi factories, some totalling millions.[16] As a result, more than one million Bangladeshi garment workers have been dismissed from their positions, and an additional five hundred thousand are preparing for the same fate. [17] Of the garment workers, 4 out of 5 are women. Many are the sole breadwinners for their extended families, earning an average of 110 dollars per month.[16] For these women, the closure of factories signifies a total loss of income. With little to depend on in savings, many families must go without even basic necessities. [17] Understanding the disproportional impact the pandemic has on these individuals requires a careful consideration of intersection theory and holism. Using this contemporary anthropological rhetoric, aspects of individual identity and circumstance can be culminated to better understand the lived experiences of such individuals. Micro instances can be further analyzed to infer patterning among the wider social group.

Intersectional Impacts

In the article “Who is Chandni Bibi […]” Aijazi posits that academics are continuously engaged in a process which simultaneously “disembowels and defragments humans and then painstakingly pieces them back together.”[18] Challenging this, the author uses Chandni Bibi's own narrations to provide an alternative standpoint from which to understand disaster. Contrary to the normalized “clinical” standpoint which assumes victimization, they suggest that we must complicate our understanding of the human experience, and recognize the nature of impact outside of singular instances. “De-centering” disaster requires opening up the parameters of anthropological investigation to include other aspects of identity such as gender, caste, kinship relations and religion. [18] While the authors argument is grounded in the context of the Pakistani 2005 earthquakes, the same analytical framework can be used to understand Bangladesh.

One woman by the name of Sampa Akhter chose to share her story with NPR, an independent American news source.[15] Akhter has been employed with the same garment factory for over a decade. She is the sole provider for her parents, sister and disabled brother on an income of ninety-five dollars per month. In late March, however, the factory in which she worked was closed due to the rising number of active COVID cases in Bangladesh.[15] Amongst rising cases, Akhter's primary concerns remain steadfast: falling behind on rent, supporting her family financially and attending to their basic needs. The virus is the least of her worries. After the lockdown, Akhter’s factory reopened, and things returned to a new “normal”, with her sewing machine just a few inches away from the one adjacent. Like Chandni Bibi, the mundane activities that define daily life for Akhter continue, and so must her struggle for survival. While health impacts of the virus are of primary concern to the international community during this time of research and evaluation, this should not minimize attempts to understand the socio-economic affect of such an event.

Third World Feminism: Activism and Agency

In her article “Contesting Cultures” Narayan argues that the label “Third World Feminist” is “open to complex ways of being inhabited.”[19] Similarly, the label of “Bangladeshi Garment Worker” is not necessarily wrought with disadvantage and the experience greatly depends on the individual. The majority of these workers are women, and this challenges the cultural confines of gender roles in Bangladesh including a woman's dependance on marriage. While the label feminist may not necessarily come to mind for workers protesting the current wage conditions, many Bangladeshi workers are currently engaging in activism at the forefront of the #PayUp agenda. The hashtag was created as a consequence of the widespread cancellation of orders on the part of billion dollar companies. Their efforts have gained the attention of over thirty companies who have in some way decided to make reparations.

While the pandemic has highlighted the disparate ways in which individuals can be affected by a global health crisis, it also exposes the immense agency, and power of individuals in advocating for the eradication of inequality. Rather than applying a rhetoric which assumes victimization/domination, it is crucial to consider the active participation of this group in their self-advocacy campaign.

Conclusion: Disaster and Disruption

While the COVID-19 Pandemic is defined as a health crisis, it is also an economic one, with consequences most visible for those living from paycheque to paycheque. Without wages, many are unable to provide for the basic needs of their families and in the face of such circumstances, choices are limited. During one protest, a worker said, "We don’t have any alternative except coming into the street doing this protest."[17] In Hewamanne's "City of Whores," she argues that global garment workers in Sri Lanka live contradictory lives, straddling the subjective roles given in both village, and urban settings. [20] The circumstances are similar in Bangladesh where urban centres often represent sites for autonomous activity. This notion of autonomy allows workers to voice their concerns on a global stage, and advocate for fair working conditions, and liveable wages. Understanding the disproportional impact of the pandemic requires an understanding of individual experiences. The culmination of these experiences in Bangladesh is evident in the ongoing protests in spite of the pandemic.

Natural Disasters and their Effects during the Global Pandemic

Sewage pipe of Boshila slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh-- this same water raises when the monsoon floods hit every year. (source: Jacob Hasle Nielsen, 2010)

By Annie Huang

The 2020 monsoon floods have affected millions of lives in Bangladesh starting as early as June.[21] In the midst of recovering from the destruction of Cyclone Amphan only two months ago,[22] a recovery process that has barely just begun was put on pause when the country is again under threat from another natural disaster. The Northern, North-Eastern, and South-Eastern regions of the country are most affected by the floods, with damages in over 30 districts and severe impacts on 15 districts.[21] Surrounding countries such as India, Nepal, and Bhutan are also facing similar situations, with loss of over 700 lives and dozens of people stranded or missing across affected regions.[23] As a natural disaster quite common to the region, flooding is something that Bangladeshis typically have had experience dealing with;[24] however, the unexpected threat of the COVID-19 pandemic has proven 2020 to be a highly challenging year for Bangladesh and its citizens.

Conditions during the Double Crisis

While health organizations such as the WHO have advocated proper hygienic practices to slow the spread of the coronavirus, it has been observed that a lack of access to clean resources or an unawareness to such procedures may lead to higher risks of infection in countries such as Bangladesh. Meeting high standards for hygiene and social distancing during the pandemic has become increasingly difficult for Bangladeshis as the destruction caused by natural disasters continue to affect the well-being of the country and its people. As a densely-populated nation, a lack of clean resources has consistently been a problem for Bangladeshi citizens. Sanitary items such as soap, face masks, alcohol and sanitizer are considered necessities to keep oneself safe, but the availability of such items are limited for those who live in distant villages, slums, refugee camps, or impoverished and isolated areas.[25] A scarcity of clean water means that people must share the same water resources; forced to live in even tighter communities, the water resources at the disposal of individuals in these flooded communities are largely impure and often carry water-borne diseases and the virus.[25] Access to drinking water is of top priority, and washing hands becomes of secondary importance. Handwashing is especially important in Bangladesh, where there is a cultural practise of eating with one's hands.[25] The loss of homes and shelters forced people to migrate from their settlements, and the now densely-populated highland areas make it almost impossible for practise social distancing.[21] Reparation processes that involve restoring shelters and facilities would normally take around 3-5 years;[21] with these monsoon floods happening almost immediately after the strongest cyclone in a decade, Cyclone Amphan, Bangladesh had barely started recovering from the hit when another disaster happened.[22] Many have also lost crops, farmlands, and livestock to the flood, and these losses have only added to an existing problem of food insecurity and financial struggle for many families.[21] Funds provided by international aid organizations have become limited during this global crisis, as donors may have lost their jobs as well and/or funds could have gone to other countries suffering from COVID-19.[24] Other problems such as lack of nutrition, marginalization and/or violence towards vulnerable groups (ex. women, children), discontinuation of education, and displacement of people from their homes have become more pressing issues than practising hygiene.[21] For many Bangladeshis, efforts in fighting the coronavirus have been futile as hygienic standards are compromised in the face of one's own survival.

Lived Local Experiences

Some Bangladeshis have shared their stories about how their lives have been impacted by the floods, which can provide insight about living conditions amidst the destruction caused by natural disasters. For Syed, a farmer and father to three children, the inundation of all his crops has caused him to worry about the financial future for his family.[24] Having to leave their submerged home behind, they have been residing in a flood control embankment for over a week.[24] Prices for seeds, fertilizer, and labour have already increased due to the virus; with farming as his family's main method of livelihood and income, paying back heavy loans and overcoming crop losses will be a challenge.[24] Another local farmer, Barmon, suffers from a similar situation, relying on his wife's meagre income while his children have fallen to illness and fever.[24] As for those who live on water islands such as Jahanara, she, her fisherman husband, and the rest of her family are struggling to make a living. [22] Riverside settlements are especially vulnerable to the damages caused by floods; as a consequence, Jahanara and her family have had to move to new shelters constantly as they continue to be washed away or become waterlogged.[22]

In Dr. Omer Aijazi's article, "Who Is Chandni bibi?: Survival as Embodiment in Disaster Disrupted Northern Pakistan," Chandni Bibi's experiences with blindness "indicates that disasters are lived, experienced, and embodied in multiple ways." (106)[18] For Syed, Barmon, and Jahanara, recovering their losses from the flood are of utmost importance because doing so may restore some form of stability and financial security into their lives. These recovery processes take many years, and in many ways are similar to Chandni Bibi's lived disaster experiences.

In “We Need an Even Bigger One”: Disasters of Inequality in Postquake Kathmandu Valley," a struggle for restoration and reconstruction in the aftermaths of earthquakes in Nepal can be observed in Bangladesh as well.[26] Governments and organizations are often more inclined to restore buildings and implement strategies that benefit the state and private developers, therefore neglecting the needs of impoverished communities. [26]

Conclusion

While the floods that happen during monsoon season every year is something Bangladeshi citizens are familiar with, the damage it brought has made containing the spread of the virus very difficult. The relief provided by international funding organisations is limited, and as described in Jock Stirrat's "Competitive Humanitarianism: Relief and the Tsunami in Sri Lanka," "what starts out as a gift becomes a commodity, and no matter how frequent the call for 'co- ordination' and 'collaboration', competition will continue to characterize the 'humanitarian international.'”(16)[9] Although organizations such as the Red Cross and UNICEF have been taking action, aid for the flood victims will be given in moderation in order to support those suffering from COVID-19 as well.[23][24] With the magnitude of these monsoon floods, the help provided by these organizations may not be the adequate source of support they need to return to a lifestyle that may take decades to restore.

Heightened Domestic Violence in the Midst of Covid-19

A photo of Tahmina Akhter who was brutally murdered by husband on Facebook live over a family dispute. April 16th 2020. (source: The Daily Bangladesh, 2020)

By Maira Malik

With the rise of COVID-19, Bangladesh has been in a state of lockdown where men, who typically are able to leave their homes and work, are forced to stay home. Similarly, women, who were once able to leave their homes as well, have no choice but to stay home. Consequently, this has led to a rise in domestic violence towards both women and children in the home. It is important to note, that even prior to the spread of COVID-19, “a quarter of women and girls had experienced sexual, physical, psychological or another form of violence”[15]. Whilst COVID-19 has significantly contributed to the rise of domestic violence in Bangladesh, it is important to first explore the underlying issues of why it has existed at such a high rate pre-pandemic.

Institutionalized Values

Domestic abuse in Bangladesh alarmingly typically “happens at the hand of members of the family who abuse, assault, humiliate and torture women and children”[27]. This leads to the question of how the dynamic plays out at home where women are seen almost as punching bags for men and their emotions. They are often raised to believe that they should silence themselves whenever possible, and suffer in silence. In her article highlighting Westernization and feminism, Narayan speaks about how “the same mother who complained about her silencing enjoined her to silence, teaching her that good daughters hold their tongues”[19]. This mentality is similarly ingrained into Bengali women  since they are young; it leads them to believe that they cannot have a say in how they are treated and that it is their duty to be submissive to any kind of abuse. Narayan continues to compare her mother’s story recalling that “the reprimand to silence came from my mother, who told me so early, because she had no one else to tell, about all her sufferings in her conjugal home”[19]. Narayan’s description of her mother and her silent suffering suggests that women in South Asia are taught to respect the male more than themselves. Currently, in the midst of COVID-19, “the reports of incidents of gender-based violence have decreased suggesting women and girls are suffering in silence”[15]. Similar to Narayan’s narrative of her mother, it is evident that to remain silent even in times of suffering is an institutionalized thought process that exists in Bangladesh as well. Not only are women taught to think less of themselves, but men are raised to believe the same.

Male Hierarchy and Internalized Sexism

Since the start of COVID-19, it was “found that stressed people release their frustration on other weaker members of their family - women and children”[27]. With women being seen as the weaker link in a family, men are also raised to see themselves as superior in countries such as Bangladesh. Automatically, even before they are born - women are deemed worthless. In the short paper “Allah Gives Both Boys And Girls”, the author follows the story of a woman who has had five girls. While interviewing the father he said “girls are fine, but the name of boys is greater”[28]. This leads to the conclusion that because the birth of a woman is already seen as inferior to that of a man, there is already a sense of disrespect that can eventually lead to violence. In a survey by a human rights foundation in Bangladesh (Manusher Jonno Foundation) it was found that since COVID-19, “4,249 women and 456 children were subjected to domestic violence in 27 out of 64 districts”[29]. This institutionalized imbalance has caused men to release their emotional frustration in the form of domestic violence. Additionally, domestic violence against women doesn’t just exist at the hands of men. In an article exploring the depiction of an “illegal Bangladeshi immigrant,” domestic violence from a woman is quite common as well. Discussing how “with the maid recast as a violent impostor, the fragile lines of gendered empathy are upset and the tenuous nature of interdependence is exposed”[30]. This analysis of how women in the home view other women who may be working for them helps to emphasize that domestic violence is so prominent, women do it to each other. Finding that women themselves have superiority complexes between each other and lack empathy helps to explain rising numbers in Bangladesh. Domestic violence in Bangladesh is currently spreading through the hands of family members. Besides the evident gender imbalance in Bangladesh, there are many other factors that contribute to the rise of domestic violence such as its normalization and the importance of marriage.  

Normalized Cultural Values

Exploring the schooling of girls in rural India, Ann Grodzins Gold spoke to a father who said, “if I send them to school, they might run off, and then I would have to set them on fire, or take my rifle and shoot them”[28]. If a father is able to speak in such a manner regarding his daughter, it’s quite evident that with constantly and casually normalizing domestic violence - it will continue to rise. During the midst of COVID-19, a report covering domestic violence in Bangladesh reported that  “92% of children have been abused”[29]. From Gold’s interview, these statistics don’t appear as shocking as they should be. With fathers normalizing abuse in conversations with strangers, this sort of behaviour only perpetuates the violence even more. In addition to the normalization of domestic violence, the importance of marriage in Bangladesh is another contributing factor to such high statistics. After further interviews with people from rural India, Gold concludes “they believe good marriages to be more essential for their well-loved daughters future well-being than any schooling”[28]. With this analysis of how marriage is the main goal for a woman in South Asia, it can help to explain domestic violence in Bangladesh. Studying the violence against women amidst COVID-19, a study found that “81% of women facing any form of violence were subjected to intimate partner violence”[15]. With women and young girls being pressured and forced into marriages, many at a young age, they are at a higher risk of facing violence. They are forced to skip out on an education that would teach them that what they are facing is not okay, and are being molded to succumb to any violence - and stay silent about it. It is important to recognize that while finding help for those that are vulnerable to domestic violence should be focused upon, relief efforts should prioritize tackling the institutional problem of allowing such violence to be normal in the first place.

Gender Inequality and Covid-19 Response in Bangladesh

A typical Bangladesh village woman taking care family members and animal.
A typical Bangladesh village woman taking care family members and animal.

By Rex Wu

Bangladesh is currently struggling to keep the spread of COVID-19 in check, and although there was evidence in the previous month that the country had succeeded in ‘flattening’ the curve of infection, there have been recent increases in the rate of infection, the overall number of infections, and the number of deaths related to infection.[31] At present there are over 260,000 confirmed cases in Bangladesh, with 3,438 deaths, but the informal aspects of the society as well as many large rural areas make it difficult to be conclusive about these statistics.[32] Cities have the highest rates of infection, and one challenge for Bangladesh is that in the large cities many people both live and work in informal economies, making it more difficult to enact regulations, provide health services, and maintain effective monitoring. Interestingly, men in Bangladesh are significantly more likely to contract the virus and also to die from it, and men represent 79% of the total number of deaths in the country.[33] That being said, Bangladesh is a patriarchal society with a significant degree of gender inequality, and there are some aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic and the country’s response to it that are disproportionately affecting women, in a country where women already struggle against many systematic patriarchal barriers ranging from disproportionate participation in the informal economic to increased rates of gender-based violence.

Patriarchal and Gender Inequality in Bangladesh

Like many nations in South Asia, Bangladesh is a country where traditional culture is constantly intersecting with aspects of modernity in complex and often unpredictable ways. Arranged marriages are still common in Bangladesh, and it is common for women to spend nearly their entire lives within patriarchal family structures that demand varying degrees of subservience to men, unpaid domestic labour, and pressure to adopt gender roles that demand patriarchal constructions of female “respectability” and “morality”.[20] As in many South Asian cultures, patriarchal and gender inequality in Bangladesh are firmly rooted in cultural practices like “arranged marriage”, “dowry”, and domesticity.[34] Similarly, women who work outside of the home, migrate to cities, and otherwise challenge traditional gender roles are often stigmatized in many ways including stereotypes of having “loose moral character”, and being corrupted by Western ideas.[20] Indeed, the UN argues that the government response to COVID-19, particularly the lockdown of many institutions and workplaces, is “disproportionately impacted women as existing gender inequalities are exacerbating gender-based disparities between women, men, girls, and boys in terms of access to information, resources to cope with the pandemic, and its socio-economic impact”.[33]

Increased Domestic and Unpaid Labour

The economic landscape is another aspect of Bangladeshi society that marginalizes women, as women have come under increasing economic pressure to find work outside of the home and this work tends to be low-paying, highly exploitative, and precarious. Indeed, UN Women (2020) estimates that over 90% of the total employment of women is in the “informal sector”.[33] These informal sectors have been hit very hard by COVID-19 and there have been “massive job losses of female workers” in Bangladesh, and because of the informal work arrangements that are disproportionately held by women, these unemployed women are far less likely to qualify for various government services and aid programs.[33]

However, women are also “bearing the brunt of increases in unpaid care work”, which means that as families find themselves suddenly unemployed and returning to the family home, women are finding that they must “absorb the additional work of constant family care duties”.[33] Perhaps paradoxically, another challenge faced disproportionately by women is the fact that the overwhelming majority of people working in the healthcare sector are women (for example, approximately 94% of nurses and 90% of community healthcare workers are women).[33] This means that women are generally at much higher risk of infection in the treatment of those who have tested positive for COVID-19, and those who are at increased risk for contraction (like older adults residing in care homes and supportive living arrangements). In fact, there are reports of female Bangladeshi healthcare workers being harassed due to the stigmatization that they are “vectors of the disease”, a stigma that certainly intersects with the existing negative stigmas of women who work outside of the home in professional settings (like healthcare).[35]

Rohingya Refugee Camps and Gender-Based Disparities

Another aspect of the intersection between gender inequality and COVID-19 in Bangladesh concerns the population of approximately 860,000 million Rohingya refugees who are living in “overcrowded, makeshift camps” around the country.[36] As with the non-Rohingya population in Bangladesh, men represent the vast majority of those infected by COVID-19 as well as the vast majority of fatalities. However, there are some ways in which aspects of gender and gender inequality are being exacerbated by COVID-19 and the government response. Many of these challenges can be summarized with the central observation that in these camps many gender-related challenges are ongoing, including relatively high rates of gender-based violence (GBV), and there are a variety of different humanitarian programs that typically operate in these camps that are no longer able to operate in the same manner (and in some cases, they cannot operate at all).[37] In other words, because of the existing gender inequalities in these camps and the large number of care services, aid programs, and humanitarian efforts that typically operate in these camps and intersect with gender inequality in some way, the inability of approximately 80% of humanitarian staff to enter the camps disproportionately affects women.[35]

Conclusion

In times of crisis and danger, when difficult decisions must be made quickly in order to deal with sudden changes and threats, there is a tendency for existing inequalities to be exacerbated. Disparate power relations, exploitation, and disempowerment tend to increase. This is arguably what is happening in Bangladesh right now with regards to existing gender inequality, patriarchal social structures, and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Things like patriarchal gender roles, the precarious and informal working arrangements of women, the disproportionately high rate of women working in healthcare services, and the inability of aid workers to maintain their operations in the most at-risk groups of the population are all being influenced negatively by the intersection of the COVID-19 response and existing gender inequality in Bangladesh.

Inequality in the Experience of Rohingya Refugees

Photo of Kutupalong Refugee Camp, the largest camp home to Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh. This image highlights the high population density and low housing quality in Rohingya refugee settlements.

By Sameer Esmail

Forced from their homeland in Myanmar’s Rakhine state due to systemic violence and discrimination, hundreds of thousands of ethnic Rohingya Muslims currently inhabit the crowded refugee camps of Cox’s Bazar district in southeastern Bangladesh.[38] The Rohingya refugee’s underprivileged positioning within Bangladesh accords them an arguably disproportionately large impact from COVID-19 as opposed to other Bangladeshi residents. This essay will endeavour to answer the following questions about their experience. How have Rohingya refugees been impacted in terms of their community’s health and well-being, sociopolitical relationships, and progress towards future development due to the COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh? How do pre-existing inequalities exacerbate the impact of COVID-19 for Rohingya refugees?

Health and Well-Being: Mid-Disaster and Post-Disaster

To better understand how Rohingya refugee health and well-being has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic, one can first turn to the writing of Nusrat Chowdhury, who articulates that contagion exists as both an epidemiological phenomenon but also an accidental and ephemeral sociality.[39] Take this fact in tandem with the high population density in some Rohingya refugee camps that “house some 860 000 individuals,” and one can find that refugees are not only subject to a higher risk of viral transmission but also a degree of socially-induced trauma from fear of the crowd itself.[40] There are examples of mental health challenges unique to refugee camps as well, such as confinement to small one-room spaces in the case of Mohammed Akram, a refugee whose family is following government guidance to stay indoors.[41] Heavy monsoon rains in Southeastern Bangladesh in June 2020 only presented further health risks to families like the Akrams.[41] Omer Aijazi, in his writings on the case of Chandni Bibi, argues that memory and remembrance of an earthquake in Northern Pakistan have manifested themselves in a physical form of trauma with the loss of eyesight.[18] From Aijazi’s assertion, one can extrapolate that the burden of social trauma from the COVID-19 pandemic is something that can find mental or physical manifestations in individuals, leading to the long-term deterioration in the health of a post-disaster Rohingya refugee community. One can conclude that the living situation of the Rohingya refugees is an inequality that creates social and physical traumas out of the COVID-19 pandemic which risks the long-term collapse of the Rohingya refugees’ community health and well-being beyond this disease outbreak.

Sociopolitical Relationships: Rohingya Refugees and Bangladeshi Locals

The COVID-19 pandemic in Bangladesh has also had a profound impact on the sociopolitical relationships of the Rohingya refugees. It is important to first recognize that Rohingya refugees began to arrive in parts of Southeastern Bangladesh as early as 2017, with local Bangladeshis being the first to support them.[42] The relationship between locals and the Rohingya refugees has been one of tenuous peace for many years, however, grievances about the refugees occupying local lands are spilling over due to the pandemic. Azm Anas highlights the current misconstrued stigma towards Rohingya refugees “accused of carrying the virus” and receiving more aid benefits than locals.[42] These beliefs have resulted in “rapidly deteriorating security dynamics,” epitomized in the words of Dr. Nazmus Sakib.[42] He said that “the refugees thought if anybody expresses that they have some COVID-like symptoms, people might attack them, authorities may come to take them away.”[40] Here, a sociopolitical relationship has transitioned from one of hospitality to one of “distrust and stigmatization” between Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshi locals.[42] Just as the scholars Folmar, Cameron, and Pariyar describe that “social realities emerging from natural disasters expose what must change” to create a just society for Dalits in Nepal, one can suggest that new sociopolitical relationships emerging from this pandemic expose inequalities that must change to form a more just society for Rohingya refugees.[43] The inequality here is based on the label of Rohingya, refugee, or outsider. To create a more just society, Anas presents the value and effectiveness of social cohesion and trust-building projects in fostering reconciliatory attitudes between local Bangladeshis and Rohingya refugees.[42] With this, he offers a way forward amid deepening frustrations and animosity within a pandemic that has transformed Rohingya refugee’s relationships with their hosts, increasingly built on the inequalities associated with labels.

The Challenge to Development: Exacerbated Economic Inequality

Many Rohingya refugees’ precarious financial positions as individuals who can not support themselves without international aid is an inequality that has exacerbated the impact on their future economic development amid the COVID-19 pandemic. One can first look at the restriction of humanitarian worker entry to camps due to the risk of further COVID-19 outbreaks. The presence of these key individuals, who facilitate access to economic resources, has been cut by 80% in Rohingya refugee camps.[41] The informal sector in Bangladesh, one of the only avenues for economic activity for marginalized Rohingya refugees, has also collapsed across the country.[44] One can take this in context with Alpa Shah’s convictions about development and a worrisome picture emerges. In her study of India’s Adivasis and their involvement in the Naxalite insurgency, Shah highlights how the aims of the state are ultimately self-serving when it comes to development, with the economic upliftment of the most marginalized as low priority.[45] From her assertions, one can consider that the cut to humanitarian aid workers spells out a second disaster because the government is unlikely to fill the economic void for Rohingya refugees without a self-serving purpose. This is further supported by the Bangladeshi government’s eagerness for Rohingya refugee’s repatriation to Myanmar to alleviate their economic burden on the state.[46] With Rohingya refugees faced with the inequality of a pre-existing economic disadvantage, the reduction of support from aid workers from COVID-19, and a Bangladeshi government unwilling to fill the void, it is clear that economic development will have a negative long-term impact from COVID-19.

Conclusion

Rohingya refugees have borne many inequalities over their last few years in Southeastern Bangladesh that can be attributed to living circumstances, labels that invoke discriminatory attitudes, and economic disadvantages. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has undoubtedly exploited these inequalities to significantly impact health and well-being, sociopolitical relationships, and economic development for Rohingya refugees. These impacts are ones that will not only affect these marginalized refugees today but also long into the future.

A Pandemic of Social Injustice: Impact of COVID-19 on the Indigenous Peoples

An Indigenous woman of the Garo tribe working in the fields with her child in Bangladesh. Photo credit: Mohammad Rakibul Hasan, 2008

By Tatiana Chambers

Bangladesh is home to more than 50 Indigenous peoples (IPs)—some of the most vulnerable and marginalized communities in the country.[47] They primarily live in the flatland districts of the northern and southeastern part of the country (“the plains”), while the rest reside in the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT). Indigenous communities constitute approximately 2% of the country’s total population with their own languages and cultures.[48] However, Bangladesh has yet to adopt the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People and the economic and political rights of Bangladesh’s IPs remain ignored.[47] Now, amid a global pandemic, the long-standing issues related to IPs’ socioeconomic, cultural, and political rights have caused them to be disproportionately impacted compared to the rest of the population.[48]

Historical Marginalization of the Indigenous Peoples in Bangladesh

In 1971, after the effects of Partition, the newly created state of a Muslim-majority Pakistan was further divided when Bangladesh (East Pakistan) became an independent state from West Pakistan.[49] This led to the emergence of a secular Bengali nation-state. In “Ethnicity, caste and a pluralist society” Rajendra Pradhan highlights how the formation of a nation-state that is defined by the majority of the population sharing a common language and faith negatively affects its minority groups.[50] Pradhan states that the “Hinduisation'' of Nepal and the imposition of Nepali culture were mainly facilitated by those in power (most of them being of high-caste and Hindu) forcing minorities to either assimilate or out-migrate.[50] Similarly, Bengali political parties, such as the Awami League, have frequently participated in the Islamization of public policies resulting in vast inequalities between Muslim Bengalis and the IPs of Bangladesh (who are predominately Buddhist, Hindu, and Christian).[51][52] According to a study conducted by The Indigenous Navigator, the poverty rate among Indigenous communities in Bangladesh is higher than the national average (65% in CHT; 80% in the plains) and less than 3% of the Indigenous population possess salaried jobs.[53] As previously mentioned, the state does not recognize Indigenous Peoples as “Indigenous” and although the 15th amendment of the constitution acknowledges the existence of people with distinct ethnic identities apart from the Bengali population, issues related to IPs’ economic and political rights are overlooked.[47] Not to mention, the NGO Affairs Bureau recently banned the term “Adivasi” stating it was a threat to “national security”.[47] These disparities reveal how often ethnic nationalism manifests in the marginalization of minority groups who refuse to assimilate resulting in poverty and social injustice.

Disproportionate Effect of the COVID-19 Lockdown

As the whole world recuperates from the COVID-19 outbreak, IPs face the loss of livelihoods, food shortages, unemployment, limited access to health care services, and insufficient government relief. Due to the lockdown, many IPs have lost their jobs, some having to travel hundreds of kilometres to return home. This not only has negatively affected their ability to support themselves, but has also increased the possibility of infection. A case study conducted by Kapaeeng Foundation discovered that 95% of the Indigenous Paharia community depend on daily wages in order to eat.[48] The sudden lack of income and closure of weekly markets has caused a severe food crisis among the community with many voicing they are more afraid of starvation during the lockdown than contracting the virus. Additionally, only 10% of the Paharia community has received some form of government relief and many people have taken up loans with high-interest rates in order to survive.[48] Andrew Nelson’s article in “Aftershocked: Reflections on the 2015 Earthquake in Nepal” highlights how although everyone may suffer from natural disasters, the severity of suffering largely depends on one’s social status and geographic position.[26] This is precisely what is happening to the IPs of Bangladesh. Most of the Indigenous communities live in remote areas and do not have proper health care facilities within their vicinity, thus hindering them from accessing emergency healthcare including treatment for COVID-19.[48] Furthermore, the disproportionate impact that the pandemic has had on the Indigenous communities is largely due to the inadequate government measures implemented to support them. Some of the policy measures that have been taken by the government include: the Prime Minister’s Relief Fund (PMRF), lowering the cost of essential commodities (i.e. lentils, sugar, etc.) and providing an additional stimulus package of 677.5 BDT.[48] However, despite the government’s efforts, IPs have reported that they have received little or no support from these programs, thus widening the pre-existing socioeconomic divide between the IPs and local Bengalis.[48]

An Unending Cycle of Suffering: The Need for Structural Change

Indigenous communities must endure the repercussions of the COVID-19 shutdown, as well as pre-existing inequalities and pervasive discrimination. Prior to COVID-19, Indigenous communities faced human rights violations, gender-based violence, and loss of their land.[53] During the pandemic, the reports of human rights violations of harassment, intimidation, and sexual assault have continued abidingly.[48] Moreover, violence against Indigenous women remains prevalent despite the nationwide lockdown. From January to June 2020, a total of 13 cases of violence against Indigenous women including rape, abduction, and murder were reported.[48] In addition, private companies and security forces are allegedly taking advantage of the lockdown by continuing to occupy Indigenous territories to build their own establishments. Between March and June 2020, at least 6,500 acres of land belonging to IPs were reported occupied.[48] Due to COVID-19 obtaining most of the media’s attention, Indigenous communities are left to fend for themselves as their land and rights continue to be exploited—all while surviving a global pandemic. The article “Digging for Dalit: Social Justice and an Inclusive Anthropology of Nepal” demonstrates how the social inequality that Dalits face in many ways echoes the injustice experienced by the IPs in Bangladesh.[54] Both communities are seen as outcastes who repeatedly face identity-based discrimination and the structural inequalities, amid disaster, only further emphasize what must change to build a more impartial world.[54]

Conclusion

It is evident that the government of Bangladesh cannot address the needs of the IPs, who remain vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic, without addressing the economic, social, and political barriers that continue to marginalize them. Developing culturally sensitive policies and providing universal access to public services are examples of long-term solutions the government can take to empower its Indigenous population and better equip them for future crises.[48]

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