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Bangladesh Establishes $590M COVID-19 Aid Package

Pulack Ghatack and Paritosh Kanti Paul
Dhaka and Kolkata, India
2020-03-25
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Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addresses the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic, March 25, 2020.
Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina addresses the nation on the COVID-19 pandemic, March 25, 2020.
Courtesy Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha

Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on Wednesday announced a 50 billion taka (U.S. $590 million) incentive package for the country’s ready-made garment industry and other export-oriented sectors to help them cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

In her first speech to the nation since the public health crisis broke out, she also called on citizens to stay home to help the government in its efforts to contain COVID-19.

“The money can be used only to pay salaries of the employees,” she said in a televised address to the nation marking the country’s Independence and National Day.

“We achieved victory in 1971 in a united fight against the enemies,” she said in her 23-minute speech, referring to the war of independence against Pakistan that led to Bangladesh’s birth as a nation. “Now, facing off against coronavirus is also a war. It is your duty to stay at home in this battle. We will win by being united in fighting the battle.”

The prime minister called on the nation to practice austerity.

“Don’t buy anything beyond the minimal necessity. Do not hoard goods and allow people with limited income to purchase their essentials,” she said.

“The supply chains (of products) in the country and with outside world remain intact,” Hasina said as she urged traders not to increase prices of essential goods irrationally and thereby contributing to people’s suffering.

Hasina said the government’s top priority was to keep people from being infected.

She said six hospitals were set up in Dhaka for COVID-19 patients while arrangements were being established to treat patients in five more hospitals in the capital, according to Bangladesh Sangbad Sangstha (BSS), the state news service.

The number of nationwide infections remained at 39 on Wednesday while the death toll climbed to five from four on Tuesday, according to Meerjady Sabrina Flora, director of the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR).

Worldwide, more than 20,500 people have died and at least 454,000 others have been infected, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

Pray at home

Hasina also called on people of all faiths to stay home and pray.

Islamic scholar Maulana Farid Uddin Masud questioned the prime minister’s request.

“There are two types of prayers in Islam – one, like Nafil Namaz, can be performed at home. But there is an obligation to go to mosques to offer Jammah and other prayers,” he told BenarNews.

“If the government imposes a ban by law on going outside, in that case Muslims will get an ozre [a cause] to avoid the mosques, which can be acceptable to Allah. Otherwise Muslims will have to go to mosques and adopt security measures like wearing masks,” he said.

Meanwhile, the general secretary of the Bangladesh Hindu Buddhist Christian Unity Council found Hasina’s call acceptable.

“There is no problem offering prayers while staying at home alone,” Rana Dasgupta told BenarNews.

“Everybody should respect the call of the prime minister in this regard. It cannot be acceptable to God that you will contribute to spreading coronavirus by joining prayers with so many people,” said Dasgupta, leader of the largest interfaith organization incorporating people of all faiths other than Islam.

Economic reactions

Bangladesh’s garment industry, which employs millions of workers, and other industries have been hit hard by economic side effects from the pandemic. In recent days, European and American buyers have cancelled orders from Bangladeshi garment factories that were valued at $2.5 billion.

An economist and a union leader said the prime minister’s stimulus plan was not adequate.

“Earmarking the amount to pay to the workers was a nice thing, but at best, one month’s minimum salary for some 4 million garment workers can be paid with this amount,” said Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow of Center for Policy Dialogue.

“It means the factory owners will have to make huge contributions. Such a blow will be tough for the economy if the situation continues,” he told BenarNews.

The organizing secretary of Garments Trade Union Center expressed similar concerns.

“The support of the prime minister is no doubt a good news for us, but the reality is different,” K.M. Mintu told BenarNews. “Already, workers are being terminated with COVID-19 as the excuse. I know of more than 10 factories and there are others too.

“There is no protection in the factories from the coronavirus. Owners on the one hand say the orders are being canceled, on the other hand they are forcing employees to work,” Mintu said.

India lockdown

In neighboring India on Wednesday, people made a beeline for grocery stores and markets hoping to find food, after a 21-day lockdown over the coronavirus kicked in at midnight across the world’s second most populous nation.

In a nationally televised address on Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the unprecedented move as the only way to break the coronavirus transmission chain. Police in West Bengal state, which borders Bangladesh, used batons to enforce the ban.

Sinjini Sengupta, a Kolkata teacher, said she went to a market to purchase essential items, but returned home with nothing, adding she saw police using their batons to hit people in front of her.

“That is why I came back to my home,” she told BenarNews. West Bengal Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee called on people to follow the lockdown.

According to the latest update from India’s health ministry, the number of COVID-19 cases in the country stood at 606, including 10 deaths.

Regional updates

While Indonesia, the largest nation in Southeast Asia, was not yet under “lockdown” like some of its neighbors, many cities and localities have declared emergencies and imposed restrictions.

Authorities in Papua province announced Wednesday that they would shut down airports, sea ports and entrances on the border with Papua New Guinea, effective Thursday, imposing the most stringent measures anywhere in the nation.

In Malaysia on Wednesday, the country’s new government announced that it was extending a nationwide lockdown by two weeks. Malaysian Prime Minister Muhyiddin Yassin warned that “things might get harder” with COVID-19 infection rates continuing to climb by more than 100 new cases each day.

And in Thailand, authorities moved to seal its borders to keep non-resident foreigners from arriving at land check points, ports, and airports. A few exceptions have been made for those people with Thai work permits, diplomats and international organization staff, according to officials.

Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta, Victor Mambor in Jayapura, Indonesia, and Nontarat Phaicharoen and Wilawan Watcharasakwet in Bangkok contributed to this report.

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