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April 19, 2020

‘We can’t get any poorer’ – the ultra-poor’s plight in the midst of COVID-19 pandemic

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On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared that the spread of COVID-19 to be a global pandemic.  Since then, over 3 million cases have been reported worldwide, with more than 200,000 (WHO)  Preventative measures to reduce further spread of the virus have changed the way the world operates; from restricted travel, suspending schools, community meetings, social and religious  gatherings, to maintaining a physical distance of six feet from one another and strict social isolation for weeks now. While it is evident how the developed countries were greatly impacted by the pandemic, it surely is also posing a devastating blow to the poor populations, especially Bangladesh. The first COVID-19 positive case in Bangladesh was reportedvon March 8, 2020, and as of April 30, 2020, the country has  (IEDCR) .confirmed cases with 160 reported recoveries and 168 deaths. With an incredibly dense population of 161 million, 24 million of whom are still living below the poverty line, Bangladesh is already faces significant vulnerabilities, including natural disasters. In this regard, the Government of Bangladesh (GoB) and non-government organizations lead and support many efforts to aid its people out of poverty. USAID’s SHOUHARDO III, implemented by CARE Bangladesh, has been supporting the ultra-poor in northern Bangladesh since 2015.   COVID-19 severely impacts community livelihoods  Amidst the ongoing pandemic, SHOUHARDO III continues to engage program participants whom they have supported since 2016. The majority are farmers and daily wage workers who have seen a 50% or more reduction in their incomes since COVID-19 reached Bangladesh. “I used to work in Dhaka as a rickshaw puller, but since the pandemic I have been stuck in my home with nothing else to do. I used to earn 4,500 BDT per month but now it’s just down to zero,” shared Shah Alom from Chouhali in Sirajganj district. The longer the lockdown is in place, the greater the suffering of the poor households will be. Unfortunately, the situation for farmers is not much different, and looks increasingly grim the more time passes. April is harvest time for rice and other major crops in rural Bangladesh; but this year, due to movement restrictions imposed by the lockdown, laborers are unable to move to the fields for harvesting-related jobs. Abeda Begum from Fulchari in Gaibandha district shared, “If I miss this harvest season, I do not know how we will survive until the next one.” Abeda is a widow, living with two children and her mother-in-law. Even if the laborers manage to move to the fields, Abeda and others face the risk of infection due to the proximity and interaction with other people on the ground.   Hunger – the prevailing condition in the villages With reduced incomes, the ability to cope with the pandemic is limited. Even before this crisis, SHOUHAROD III’s program participants would at least manage to have an egg, or fish, and sometimes meat, but the pandemic is impacting their eating habits, reducing protein intake and decreasing daily dietary diversity. Gul Raz from Tahirpur in Sunamganj district shared, “I already sold my chickens and ducks in exchange for the money we need to survive. We eat rice with water these days since that’s all we have.” Unfortunately, this is proving to be a common occurrence.  Ful Mia from Mithamoin in Kishoreganj district, whose husband is a fisherman, reported that her family cannot even afford to eat fish these days. Beyond the quality of their meals, families are also reporting a reduction in the quantity of meals they are eating per day. This is especially a challenge for those most in need of nutritious food, such as pregnant and breastfeeding women. Rima, from Ajmiriganj in Habiganj district and nine-months pregnant, shared, “I only manage to eat egg once a day, and some days [it is] nothing at all.” With children not receiving enough nutrients from their mothers, the entirety of the ripple effects of this devastating pandemic have yet to become apparent. In response to the ongoing situation, SHOUHARDO III’s support has adapted by replacing monthly commodity rations with 500 BDT (6 USD), to be used as needed.  Rima is carefully planning how to spend the money for her prenatal needs.   Changing Perceptions on Handwashing One positive change SHOUHARDO III has noted amongst program participants, is the communities’ perception and understanding of the importance of proper and regular handwashing. Prior to this pandemic, individuals self-reported only washing after using the toilets. Now, they also report practicing proper handwashing techniques before eating, after eating, after cleaning, and after washing babies. Aynal from Char Rajibpur in Kurigram admitted, “With the messages we received about the pandemic, we got conscious about handwashing. Now we wash hands regularly whereas before, we normally forgot to do it.” Despite SHOUHARDO III participants being aware of the coronavirus pandemic, its threats, and efforts to prevent it; the majority of the information they’ve obtained from local television channels, radio and social media, they continue to fear the risks associated with people traveling from the main cities, such as Dhaka and Chittagong, and the possibility of them igniting transmission at the community-level. SHOUHARDO III started broadcasting Public Service Announcement through the local radio reaching approximately 34,000 people including youths and adolescents. With the situation ever worsening in Bangladesh – affected incomes, reduced nutrition and overall food security – time is a critical factor in the population’s survival. As movement restrictions continue for an extended period, people will be compelled to sell their assets until they have nothing left. Additionally, the monsoon season is around the corner which will only exacerbates the vulnerabilities of the poor and extreme poor as the pandemic wages on. Women, in particular, are absorbing a disproportionate amount of the burden with an increase household word, expectations to take care of both children and the sick, all while accommodating the increased number of family members in the household, who are now required to stay home all day. There is no need to exaggerate here, the conditions for the poor and extreme poor amidst the pandemic continue to grow direr with each passing day. Written by Afrhill Rances, Senior Team Leader – Knowledge Management and Learning Unit of SHOUHARDO III, CARE Bangladesh.