COVID-19 and the growing vulnerability of overseas Bangladeshis
Due to COVID-19, Bangladeshi workers abroad are caught jobless, quarantined in shabby living places, mentally disturbed because of their family crisis of getting no money, fear of being affected by the coronavirus aftermath and uncertainties of being back in Bangladesh, write Dr. Mohammad Rezaul Karim and Dr. Mohammad Tarikul Islam for South Asia Monitor
Bangladesh is one of the beneficiaries of globalization and it is also one of the worst-hit countries by coronavirus pandemic. International travelers from Italy, Saudi Arabia and UAE are thought to be the primary carriers of the virus in Bangladesh where it later reached the community transmission stage. International flights are suspended unless it is an emergency. A huge number of overseas Bangladeshis are trapped, affected, and in critical situations. These Bangladeshis comprise migrant workers in the Middle East, Singapore, Malaysia; immigrants in European Countries and the US; and self-financed students in Europe, the US, India; and visitors, including medical tourists, particularly in India. This group equals to approximately 15 million, which is more than the total population of any of the 159 countries of the world.
Due to COVID-19, Bangladeshi workers abroad are caught jobless, quarantined in shabby living places, mentally disturbed because of their family crisis of getting no money, fear of being affected by the coronavirus aftermath, and uncertainties of being back in Bangladesh. Different reports indicate that about 40 percent of those infected are in Singapore. This group lives in cramped dormitories, which can be the epicenter for coronavirus outbreak. Although the government of Singapore has taken effective initiatives, the surrounding environment may work against it. It is evident that the number of corona positive Bangladeshis in Singapore is higher than or equal to the total infected people in Bangladesh. Similar cases are found in UAE, Qatar, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and Malaysia where most Bangladeshi workers migrated for employment. Bangladesh is perhaps the only country with a bigger corona-infected population outside the country than inside.
They are also most vulnerable. Bangladeshi immigrants and temporary residents have also a great contribution to the national economy as they send remittances back home. This section is passing through hard times because of the closure of economic activities. A majority of this group are in unstructured jobs mostly in the service sectors, e.g. taxi driver, restaurant workers, etc. which are most affected because of social distancing practices. Besides, another group comprises doctors, nurses, who are also the most vulnerable at this moment.
It is evident that more than 300 overseas Bangladeshis have died of COVID-19. Among them are a good number of doctors in the US, UK, Italy, and Saudi Arabia. Self-financed students are another group who are passing through a hard time outside the country because banking transactions have stopped. Although Bangladesh Bank has recently issued an order that it can send money to overseas Bangladeshis without the consent of the central bank, it was not possible before which means students who are studying in the European countries or the US are facing hardships.
Bangladeshi visitors who are currently trapped outside because of business and medical purposes are affected groups as well. Trapped Bangladeshis have run out of cash and are living on expired visas. The main reason is the difficulty in banking transactions as the credit card limits to sum 5000 US dollars per year. The Bangladesh Bank has recently increased the limit. Patients, especially in India, may face more hardships because of uncertainty. The cost of treatment for this unexpected expenditure may add financial burden and long-term hardship for the families. The regular patients (about one million), who are undergoing treatment from Indian doctors are in danger because of the communication breakdown.
Vulnerability of this overseas group brings cultural shock. The social acceptance of overseas Bangladeshis will fall dramatically, which was highly valued earlier. Bangladeshi people will not accept overseas people, especially from Italy, Saudi Arabia and the UAE and completely forget their financial contribution to the national economy. They have sought institutional quarantine facility at Diyabari, Dhaka. On the other hand, the remittance senders did not want to stay in 14-day-quarantine at the government-designated area and they forced the administration to allow them to self-quarantine in their homes, which did not work. This was the beginning of the community spread in Bangladesh.
It is reportedly said that flights were stopped to prevent their entry. Family members also did not welcome them. On the other hand, thousands of Bangladeshi migrants who came home on leave and those who were waiting to fly after securing visas are not being able to rejoin work abroad as the destination countries have imposed travel bans.
A recession may prevent working abroad. If it happens, Bangladesh may face multiple problems including unemployment, joblessness, spending from savings, and social crisis. Apart from this, Bangladesh's economy may drastically shrink because it is most reliant on the remittances and garment manufacturing income. Foreign remittances are already down to their lowest in the last 12 months. The GDP growth rate will also be seriously affected.
Bangladesh needs to think to utilize the inflow and outflow of overseas employees. The strong agriculture-based internal market can be one of the solutions which can produce other backward linkage agro-based industries. Secondly, the Ministry of Expatriate Workers and Overseas Employment along with its departments can identify all legal and illegal migrants and force them to enroll with the government IT-based mechanism so that the government can trace and track them easily to take necessary action. Migrant workers can be taken under supervision and surveillance. Meanwhile, the government can come forward with a future course of action for both legal and illegal migrant workers and set a comprehensive plan for implementation. The status quo can be followed currently until normalcy returns. Only emergency crisis in consultation with the host countries can be settled.
The government of Bangladesh should focus on imparting skills training to nursing, health technology, management, and medicine and the hospitality sector as part of the migration strategy. As the overseas employees of South Asian countries are the worst sufferers, a South Asian platform can also be formed to mitigate the problem.
(Dr. Mohammad Rezaul Karim is Deputy Director, Bangladesh Public Administration Training Centre, Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh. Dr. Mohammad Tarikul Islam is Associate Professor, Department of Government and Politics, University of Jahangirnagar, Savar, Dhaka, Bangladesh. They can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com respectively)
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