Job loss, hunger stalk South Asia in COVID-19 times

South Asia is home to over 1.8 billion people and houses half of the world’s impoverished communities, writes Aashish Kiphayet for South Asia Monitor

Aashish Kiphayet May 20, 2020

Kashem, a 54-year-old street vendor, is a daily wage-earner, who lives in a congested slum in Bangladesh's capital city Dhaka. He lost his wife nine years ago. He has a 16-year old daughter, Kulsum, who is a low-paid readymade garment worker. Recently, she lost her job due to COVID-19. Kashem is also unable to re-open his street shop because of the countywide lockdown. Kashem’s life now stands on a double-edged sword: outside the house is the fear of the contagious pandemic and inside the house is starvation and no income.

Suffering is endless for Kashem who without any kind of savings or income generation has to pay house rent and maintain livelihoods. This story of suffering is not only about Kashem and Kulsum, but also about almost half of the population in Bangladesh, and across South Asia, in India, Pakistan, Nepal, Afghanistan and others: a garment worker, a street vendor, a rickshaw puller, a construction worker, a transport worker, and domestic help. But they are not only the ones who fear untold hardships due to job loss.

Even the fear of being laid off affects the private sector executive equally. The media sector also shares the same fate. Recently, dozens of prominent mass media houses in Bangladesh sacked their officials and employees as the pandemic raged in Bangladesh. One of the prominent TV channels fired three of its employees on the same day as World Press Freedom Day. This demonstrates the magnitude of the crisis the country is facing today and going to face in the coming days.

Researchers from Dhaka University’s Institute of Health Economics estimates that around 15 million people employed in different sectors will become jobless in Bangladesh due to the slowdown of trade and business caused by the deadly virus. Moreover, some Bangladeshi economist and the analyst estimated that nearly 20 million people might lose their jobless due to COVID-19 crisis. They estimated that people who are involved in labor-oriented sectors like garment workers, construction workers, transport workers have already become temporarily jobless, which puts serious stress on the economy and will have a huge adverse impact on livelihoods.

Casual laborers, transport workers, hawkers, hotel and restaurants employees, and those working in small neighbourhood shops or even malls, and other informal workers are directly hit because of social distancing enforcement and lockdowns imposed as public safeguards against the coronavirus pandemic. 

According to the Labour Force Survey-2017, around 60.8 million people were involved in various economic activities in Bangladesh, while informal employment or labor-oriented sectors were dominating at 85.1 percent of the total population in Bangladesh. The contribution of informal jobs in the urban areas were 13.1 million, while it was 38.6 million in rural areas.
According to the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS), around 34 million people, or 20.5 percent of the population, live below the poverty line. So, there is no alternative but to provide government assistance to keep this population alive. The government announced the stimulus packages to counter the impact of the virus, but it’s not enough. People need basic things at the time of the pandemic. So, the government not only has to improve healthcare facilities and make it more assessable for the poor but also see to it that people don’t die of hunger and are provided with food aid.

The pandemic has also brought much distress to some unnoticed and not talked about vulnerable communities like the sex workers and transgenders. The Bangladesh Sex Workers Network, a non-government organization working for the rights of sex workers, estimated that at least 8,000 sex workers have already become homeless in Dhaka. About 150,000 sex workers in Bangladesh are one of the worst-hit communities following the shutdown. On top of that these communities hardly receive any attention from the government or civil society aid groups leading to exacerbated difficulties.  

The unemployment scenario is more or less the same across South Asia. In India, the countrywide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus has seen 122 million Indians lose their jobs in April alone. India's unemployment rate is now at a record peak of 27.1 percent, according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE). According to estimates, unemployment hit 23.5 percent in April, a sharp spike from 8.7 percent in March. And the unemployment rate is the highest in urban areas. There is an unemployment rate peaking about 50 percent. 

But some Himalayan states reported the lowest incidence of unemployment as of April, the survey said, pointing out that the rate in Himachal Pradesh stood at 2.2 percent, Sikkim at 2.3 percent and Uttarakhand at 6.5 percent. The data showed the devastating effect the lockdown has had on India's organized economy. Of the 122 million who have lost their jobs, 91.3 millions were small traders and labourers. But a fairly significant number of salaried workers - 17.8 million - and self-employed people - 18.2 million - have also lost work, the data showed.
In Pakistan, the Minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar, said that around 18 million people might lose their jobs as a result of the lockdown. But Pakistan makes a pleasant paradigm to prevent the worst unemployment situation. The world’s fifth populated country, Pakistan’s ‘green stimulus scheme’ is a win-win for the environment and also for the unemployed population. Lahore has created more than 63,000 jobs for unemployed day labourers by re-launching the nation’s ambitious 10 billion Tree Tsunami Campaign. This project is part of Pakistan's existing initiative to plant billions of trees to counter the effects of climate change. 

Similar to other South Asian countries, Pakistan is badly affected by climate change, experiencing more than 150 extreme weather events between 1999 and 2018. Another step is that Prime Minister Imran Khan took was to launch a web portal for the victims of lockdown. Those who have lost their jobs will be able to register themselves on the portal. Under this Ehsaas Emergency Cash program, registered unemployed will be given a maximum Rs. 12,000.

In Afghanistan, according to data by the Biruni Institute, a local economic think-tank, as a result of the pandemic, six million people have already lost their jobs in the country, where 80 percent of people live below the poverty line. The political crisis is the other reason for unemployment in the country. The political crisis, security threats, the lockdown of cities, and the reduction of international aid are a matter of concern in the war-ravaged Afghanistan. The Ministry of Economy had warned earlier that unemployment in Afghanistan will increase by 40 percent and poverty will increase by 70 percent because of unemployment and the spread of the COVID-19. But the ray of hope is the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which approved $220 million in emergency aid for Afghanistan to help cushion the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Other countries in South Asia is also experiencing the rampage of the pandemic while poverty was already an embedded part of their economy. Pre-pandemic poverty rate as estimated - 8.2 percent in both Bhutan and the Maldives, 25 percent in Nepal, and 33 percent in Sri Lanka. This rate is highly likely to increase at an unprecedented scale.  
The International Labour Organization said, nearly half the world's workers are at immediate risk of losing their jobs. The sobering statement will ring alarm bells in economies around the world, with every nation on the planet likely to be affected by the devastating fallout from the spread of coronavirus. Some 1.6 billion workers in the informal or labor-oriented sectors, almost half of the global labor force, as well as that at the most vulnerable end of the employment ladder are in danger of losing their livelihoods.
South Asia is home to over 1.8 billion people and houses half of the world’s impoverished communities. The region has the potential to become the ‘factory of the world’ as many countries are turning away from China, considered to have exported the virus to the world. But it is still uncertain how the South Asian countries will overcome the upcoming post-pandemic recession and feed their workforce to remain alive to take over the global labour market.  

Nonetheless, some employers are taking advantage of the pandemic by oppressing their labourers, which is not a humanistic approach, and will lead to the trust crisis and labor-unrest in the region. South Asian leaders should work together to build the region during the pandemic and post-pandemic recession.

(The writer is a journalist and South Asian geopolitical analyst. The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at

Post a Comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.