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Covid-19 fuels hunger and poverty in Bangladesh

Experts warn that the pandemic will throw 50 million into poverty and worsen food insecurity

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Mission in Asia | Make a Contribution
Covid-19 fuels hunger and poverty in Bangladesh

A child waits for her mother on a rickshaw van with lunch boxes for office workers in Dhaka. Covid-19 is likely to worsen poverty and hunger in Bangladesh, experts warn. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

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Maungchanu Tripura has been familiar with poverty and hunger for years, but the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the plight of his family.

Tripura, 54, is an ethnic Tripura Catholic and father of four living in a remote village in the Lama area of hilly, forested Bandarban district in southeast Bangladesh.

He is a farmer and owns one acre of ancestral land. He grows rice, arum, mango and guava. Sales of his produce provide the only income for his family. Two of his daughters go to school.

The area is part of Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT), the country’s only mountainous region bordering Myanmar and India and home to dozens of indigenous groups.

Despite the breathtaking natural beauty of the CHT thanks to hills, forests, lakes and springs, the region suffers from a shortage of arable land, making local people highly food insecure.

During the lean period between planting and harvesting, and the rainy season from May to August, many families suffer from chronic hunger due to dwindling food stocks and loss of income.

“During the rainy season, often crops are destroyed due to flooding and landslides. People are forced to skip meals and survive with what they can find in the forests,” Tripura told UCA News.

This year Covid-19 has worsened the situation for poor farmers like him.

“This is the fruit season but we are at big loss. Markets are closed and traders are few. Prices are less than half the usual. We are struggling to survive,” he said.

Since the start of a nationwide shutdown on March 26, thousands of poor people including ethnic communities in remote areas like CHT have faced challenges getting food from state-run food schemes.

Tripura said he had received no food or cash support during the crisis except for 1,600 taka (US$19) from Catholic charity Caritas Chittagong.

“People like us really don’t have much option in times of crisis. The government needs to assist us so that we can overcome dire conditions,” he added.

Poverty and food insecurity

In April, a leading economist from the World Bank warned that Covid-19 will throw some 50 million into poverty in Bangladesh.

In a report on June 7, the Center for Policy Dialogue (CPD), a Bangladeshi think tank, said overall poverty has risen by 10 percent and could return to 40 percent, the rate Bangladesh left behind 15 years ago.

The latest study by the state-run Bureau of Statistics showed the level of poverty was 24 percent in 2016.

“Due to Covid-19, the number of jobless people has increased drastically and income has fallen significantly. The poverty rate is growing fast,” Mustafizur Rahman, a fellow of the CPD, told UCA News.

And poverty is most likely to hit hard the millions in Bangladesh who are already food insecure.

About a quarter of Bangladesh’s more than 160 million people are food insecure and 11 million suffer from chronic hunger, while one in three children are afflicted by stunted growth due to acute malnutrition, according to the World Food Program.

There are many cases of people slipping into poverty due to the pandemic.

Mojnu Sarkar, 35, a Muslim father of two, was a machine operator at a machine tools factory in Dinajpur district until March. He used to support his family with a monthly wage of 7,000 taka.

“There is no indication if and when the factory will start again or whether I will have a job. We have been suffering badly since I returned home,” Sarkar told UCA News.

The family received 10kg of rice and 2,000 taka cash from local aid groups, which ran out fast. Sarkar borrowed 10,000 taka from neighbors to survive.

“If we don’t get support from the government and NGOs, and I remain unemployed, my family will be starving soon, and I will be under severe pressure to pay back the loan,” he lamented.

A garment worker takes her lunch inside a tin shanty in Dhaka. Millions of people in Bangladesh are expected to slip into poverty due to the pandemic. (Photo: Stephan Uttom/UCA News)

Caritas takes on food security

Government officials say Bangladesh has good food production and enough food stock, so a food crisis due to the pandemic is unlikely.

However, noted economist Mirza Azizul Islam warned that loss of income and declining purchase capacity would mean large numbers of people won’t have access to food despite a steady supply.

“Many people have lost their source of earning and become temporarily jobless. So, it is the main challenge to ensure food for them by widening social safety net programs,” Islam told Dhaka Tribune newspaper.

Shamsul Alam, a member of the General Economy Department at the state-run Planning Commission, agreed that millions risk slipping into poverty due to Covid-19.

“We fear more than four million will become extremely poor, and we need to think about how to support them in the coming days,” Alam told UCA News.

It is essential to ensure food aid to needy people at a time of crisis, but most important is to ensure their food security permanently, said James Gomes, Caritas Chittagong regional director.

Gomes said Caritas runs seven food security projects that cover all of Bangladesh. In Chittagong, three projects directly related to food security cover about 20,000 people.

“People on the hills are among the most highly food insecure communities, and their condition has worsened during the pandemic. Life here is largely dependent on agriculture, and people live on selling their produce twice a week,” Gomes told UCA News.

“Their condition will worsen further if nature turns hostile during the rainy season and triggers flooding and landslides.” 

Caritas has been supporting farmers with training to produce better crops and offering improved seeds. Where necessary, it provide cash incentives, he explained, adding that people on the hills and in other remote areas can overcome poverty and hunger with formal education, technical training and savings.

“Education and training can help get better crop yields, technical training enables them to get alternative employment, and savings mentality is big support in times of need. We have been prioritizing such initiatives in our projects to make them sustainable,” Gomes said.

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