The Covid-19 global pandemic unleashing a catastrophic health crisis – with the spread of a disease on this scale unprecedented over more than a century now since the Spanish flu of 1918 – continues to ravage global economies causing economic activities to plunge in astronomical proportions affecting livelihoods along with the continuously rising tragic loss of human life caused by the virus itself. With the developed economies reeling from mitigating measures, many developing countries, including Bangladesh, are in sheer distress in dealing with a double challenge of containing the virus spread and addressing socio-economic impacts. While the already inadequate health services being completely overwhelmed, curtailed economic activities manifested in factory closures, massive loss of employment, cancellation of export orders, declining remittances, and depressed demand for domestically produced goods and services have caused massive disruptions affecting most population groups and leading to a dramatic rise in poverty and vulnerability. Indeed, development gains over the past decade are being threatened by this crisis as the resultant economic consequences could push global poverty up by as much as half a billion people, or 8 per cent of the total human population (Sumner et al., 2020).
Having adopted the National Social Security Strategy (NSSS) in 2015, Bangladesh is currently implementing various programmatic and institutional reforms to make a transition from an ad hoc and fragmented safety nets-based system to a more structured and streamlined approach to help beneficiaries address their lifecycle risks along with mitigating covariate and idiosyncratic shocks. To accomplish the NSSS-articulated long-term vision of the social security system, certain goals are sought to be achieved under a 10-year first phase (2015-25) while a roadmap for an additional phase starting from 2026 has also been envisaged. The Covid-19 pandemic has thus struck Bangladesh with the continuation of erstwhile social protection interventions, which have been known to be incompatible with the need of a rapidly transforming economy. It is also becoming clear that, perhaps a completely reformed system – as envisaged in the NSSS – would still be not robust enough to grapple with the crisis of this magnitude. There are, therefore, important lessons in building an appropriate social protection system in future.
In response to the crisis, the government has already taken several measures that deserve appreciation. The decision of shutting down economic activities was a right one, although its strict enforcement for a populous and so densely populated country like Bangladesh, with much of the population depending on their daily activities for livelihoods, was a challenge. The government has also rolled out a large stimulus package for supporting enterprises and their workers, mostly in the formal sector. Along with providing some one-off emergency cash assistance to five million households, certain social security programmes have also been beefed up with the objective of increasing beneficiary coverage.