Turning Covid-19 into a Gateway for Change

Dr. Ranjan Roy

7 January, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Turning Covid-19 into a Gateway for Change

Dr. Ranjan Roy

Covid-19 has been upending our lives and plunging the world into suffering and grief. 2020 was a year of ‘tragedies and tears’ while 2021 has started-off as a year of ‘building back better’—a strategy aimed at creating more sustainable, resilient, and inclusive societies. To this end, the lessons of Covid-19 can be a gateway for radical changes in economic activity required to address Covid-19 impact on poverty, employment and income as well as to achieve the national goals for climate and sustainable development.

Key lessons learned from Covid-19 includes only export-industry will not fully deliver the country, domestic industry must be competitive, and special importance for improving must be given to agricultural sectors. Other lessons are (a) institutional scaffoldings have to be capable to exploit stimulus packages (and incentives), particularly, initiatives must be in place to provide financial stimulus packages to SMEs, and (b) more proactive initiatives are critical for building a digital Bangladesh, that is, create enabling digital infrastructure and platforms that enables stakeholders to sustainably develop, utilise and commercialise.

The UN Secretary-General opines “we need to turn the recovery into a real opportunity to do things right for the future.” Likewise, the UN Climate Chief states, Covid-19 recovery is “an opportunity for nations to green their recovery packages and shape the 21stcentury economy in ways that are clean, green, healthy, safe and more resilient.” Considering these worthy statements and realising the fault lines of the recent development experience, governments should redefine the upcoming development strategy and proactively act on ‘multiple fronts’ to help the economy ‘grow back greener/better.’

First and foremost, government initiatives are required to contain the second wave of coronavirus and save lives. Key initiatives include enhancing core public health functions such as testing, isolating and treating the infected, tracing their contacts, quarantining the exposed and ensuring border health security.

The WHO, OECD and public health experts have been advocating for building resilient health care facilities. Health system resilience is the ability to maintain optimal system performance in times of adversity/crises. More broadly, (climate) resilient health systems are capable of anticipating, responding to, coping with, recovering from and adapting to (climate-related) disturbances to bring sustained improvements in health care facilities.

The WHO has developed specific guideline to build resilient health care systems that entail ten building blocks, inter alia, good leadership and governance, integrated risk monitoring and early warning system, climate-resilient infrastructure, climate-informed health programmes, and emergency preparedness and management.

Protecting poor and vulnerable people deserves prioritised investments. Since, due to Covid-19, overall poverty rate has increased from 20.5 to above 40 per cent, and urban poverty has augmented by three-fold.

A wide range of initiatives are needed to protect poor and vulnerable households and communities from the economic and social shocks of the crisis, restore human capital, and promote equity and inclusion in the recovery. Essential tasks include promoting highly efficient and productive agriculture by providing quality seeds, agricultural credit, effective extension services, and reasonable market price of products.

Other areas of investments are securing sustained GDP growth through mainly labour-intensive exports and technological change and making GDP growth pro-poor through structural transformation (e.g., investing in rural infrastructure) of the production base. Overall, investments (e.g., agricultural diversification) are required for achieving sustainable agriculture for food security and rural development as envisaged in the 8th Five Year Plan (2021-25).

Recovering economy must support people’s needs, jobs, infrastructure, and protect live, livelihood today and tomorrow. Resilient and sustainable recovery contingents on several action plans, include recovering better together by financing the recovery and making structural reforms.

The government has been aggressive in providing stimulus packages to support farmers, SMEs, industries, and other businesses. But the stimulus fund did not reach the marginal farmers due to bureaucratic complexities in the banks.

Besides these packages, governments should develop and provide innovative financing for green and digital investments such as digital marketing, online business, virtual platform development, and women SMEs. Central banks should inspire private sectors and provide time-worthy financial supports and loans for economic growth and employment generation.

Governments should invest more in Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSMEs), for instance, climate-smart (agricultural) technologies, green RMG factories, organic fertilisers, green brick production, green housing, and solar energy plants.

Governments have been ramping up climate action for ‘adaptation and resilience’ to climate change. Evidence indicates that incorporating “adaptation” into economic recovery packages bring “triple dividend”: reducing pandemic risk, building climate resilience, and strengthening economic recovery. Climate actions have to be nature-based to avoid climate disasters and pandemic.

Nature-based solutions substantially deliver massive economic and resilience benefits. Solutions (for example, restoring wetlands, forest, mangroves, and reefs) hugely reduce emissions, increase carbon sink capacity, and enhance resilience across forestry, agriculture, and food systems. These solutions are a long-term, cost-efficient, and scalable approach for sea level rise, drought, tidal surge, and cyclones.

Resource mobilisation is a crucial task for adaptation and resilience. Governments must facilitate private finance to support adaptation and resilience building. To this connection, assessments for the potential contribution of the private sectors to climate change adaptation actions are critical. Identification of the barriers for financing for adaptation and risks associated with adaptation investments have to be navigated. Simultaneously, establishing private sector forums to develop and broker partnerships and scale up adaptation actions are required as well.

The Covid-19 pandemic surges the impact of inequality, hitting the poor the hardest. “Gender-based violence” has been increased in record number as vulnerable people (women, children and disabled persons) spend all day with the abusers. No doubt, the government must redouble efforts to foster social protection to address inequalities.

In the coronavirus pandemic, strengthening social protection has been highlighted as a matter of the utmost importance. Establishing a gender-responsive social protection can be an optimal measure for reducing gender inequalities and discrimination. Other measures, including enacting ‘redistributive policies’ in sectors (e.g. agriculture), are a useful way to address inequalities.

In the pandemic period, people from all walks of life have received benefits from the digital revolution. More investment on building digital government is essential. This investment would be essential to attaining the SDG 9 (Industry, innovation and infrastructure) and 3 (Good health and well-being). ‘Accelerating the implementation of innovative digital technologies’ has been proven instruments for containing the outbreak. Likewise, building digital revolution in education has been a topical issue that needs careful planning and investment for developing digital infrastructure at the local level.

The UN chief calls for making 2021 “year of healing” from the impact of coronavirus. To heal broken economies and societies, many economic, social and governance-related firm initiatives are essential to implement. These initiatives have restorative or destructive implications for the changing climate—an existential threat to humanity.

As a nation, we are less habituated to learning from mistakes. Experts say, we have learnt nothing from the country’s largest disasters, namely, the Rana Plaza collapse, Nimtali tragedy and Chawkbazar fire catastrophe, as non-implementation of court’s (and civil society’s) directives over these disasters are obvious.

The lessons of Covid-19 must be incorporated in developmental activities; otherwise, it would be very difficult to address the current and imminent challenges of the 21st century, including the next pandemic that is already on the horizon.


The writer is a Professor at Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, Dhaka.