State of Governance in Bangladesh 2020-21: Managing the COVID-19 Pandemic

COVID-19 has proved to be the ultimate stress test for governance capacities all over the world. In developing countries like Bangladesh, it has exposed serious gaps in the governance of critical sectors, notably healthcare and social protection, intensifying the ‘lives vs livelihoods’ crisis of the pandemic. In a webinar on Thursday, 29 July, researchers from BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), BRAC University and the Accountability Research Center at the American University, USA, shared their findings from a recent study, to be published in State of Governance in Bangladesh 2020-21, a flagship report of BIGD.

The report was presented by Dr Mirza M. Hassan, Senior Research Fellow and Head of Governance and Politics Cluster, BIGD; Dr Naomi Hossain, Research Professor, Accountability Research Center, American University; and Professor SR Osmani, Professor of Developmental Economics, Ulster University.

Also present were distinguished discussants: Dr Rounaq Jahan, Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD); Dr Morseda Chowdhury, Director, Health, Nutrition and Population, BRAC; Dr Binayak Sen, Director General, Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies; Dr Mohammad Abdur Razzaque, Chairman, RAPID and Research Director, Policy Research Institute; and Kalpona Akter, Executive Director, Bangladesh Center for Worker Solidarity (BCWS). Professor Rehman Sobhan, Chairman, Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), provided concluding remarks as the Honorable Chair. The discussion was moderated by Dr Imran Matin, Executive Director, BIGD.

The research analyzes the governance performance of COVID-19 management in Bangladesh, identifies crucial gaps, and provides practical suggestions on how to use the pandemic and similar crises in the future as an opportunity to build an ‘anti-fragile’ governance system—by enabling flexibility, collaboration, and innovation, and by learning from this experience to improve the system.

Bangladesh is internationally renowned for its ‘resilience’ to natural disasters like floods and cyclones. But mere resilience—the capacity to cope with a crisis—will not be enough in the 21st century, when it is likely to frequently face crises of similar magnitudes, for example, ones induced by climate change and economic shocks in an increasingly connected world. To remain steadfast on our journey of improving people’s lives, we must build an ‘anti-fragile’ governance system, one that becomes stronger by facing a crisis.

The BIGD report tracked key policies and their implementation, explored community and sectoral experiences, and surveyed citizens for their perceptions of COVID-19 management. According to the survey, though citizens were broadly positive about the government’s overall performance and general management of the pandemic, they were more divided on the effectiveness of the government’s messaging on the pandemic, management of lockdowns, provisions for testing, and relief measures.

The Awami League-led government, without the possibility of immediate challenges from a viable opposition, is committed to deliver high performance, particularly on the economic front. Well-aware of the economic consequences and the livelihood impact of the lockdown, the government appeared to be tentative in implementing the lockdown in 2020. The lower than anticipated infection rate last year made this approach possible. However, lockdowns and social distancing measures have severely affected the livelihoods of citizens, particularly the economically vulnerable people, most of whom depend on daily wages, and have low savings and weak support networks.

Ensuring robust economic growth has been the dominant performance strategy of the government for many years. This growth-bias was clearly reflected in the government Covid-19 stimulus package: while the package allocated more than 3% of the GDP to growth-oriented programs, e.g., large, medium, and export-oriented enterprises, less than 1% was allocated for the economic protection of vulnerable people and their employment and enterprises. The interests of influential interest groups, e.g., RMG owners and their associations, and the relatively weak voice of marginal people and their organizations, e.g., RMG trade unions, also influenced the growth-biased design of the package.

Relief or social protection support proved to be inadequate. Efficient implementation of relief support was severely interrupted by lack of capacities as well as issues of transparency and accountability, and they fell short of providing necessary information and support to those who needed it the most. Thus, most citizens in the study believed that there was at least some corruption in the relief distribution process. Economic hardship and the absence of adequate support forced citizens to disregard social distancing measures to return to work, increasing their risk of infection. As the infection rate did not escalate as expected during winter, citizens became even more complacent about compliance to health protocols.

At the same time, the public health system struggled to adjust to the realities of the pandemic, which of course reflects the grim status of our public health. Two months into the pandemic, the country had 2,267 ventilators for its 166 million citizens and five oxygen cylinders per Upazila. Procurement of personal protection equipment (PPE) and other essential supplies was also slow. The country had no framework for managing a pandemic; the National Avian and Pandemic Influenza Preparedness and Response Plan has not been updated since 2011. The highest committee for Covid management reportedly met only three times during the first peak of the pandemic between March and July 2020. The weak health response is reflected in our testing rate too, which is much lower than most South Asian countries.

How much learning from the first year of the pandemic is being applied in dealing with the ongoing surge of the Delta variant? It appears that some learning may have been used. For example, the communication about lockdown and its scope seems to be much clearer and the lockdown enforcement much stricter. Apparently, there is more coordination in the health sector as well; the Directorate General of health services is coordinating with government hospital for better preparedness.

But for how long the strict lockdown will continue and how quickly life will go back to normal crucially depends on the strength of the health system and social safety net programs. The government needs to act fast to plug the gaps by investing in health systems and their governance, and reorienting economic policies to protect the people rather than GDP growth rates.

To make this happen, the government should build on our strengths. Bangladesh must capitalize and build on its existing extensive social safety net programs. The best way of tackling the problem of corruption, perceived or otherwise, is to improve transparency and accountability of social protection systems—for e.g., by enabling independent monitoring and scrutiny of decision-making with and establishing grievance redress mechanisms that citizens can use. The government must also build on Bangladesh’s long and successful history of state-society partnerships. Leveraging these major assets in social capital will require the government to provide more space, freedom, and active support to non-state actors. For example, implementing a successful lockdown requires full compliance and trust from the people. In this regard, community and youth groups, NGOs, etc. can help raise awareness among people to ensure proper compliance of lockdown and social distancing measures.

The government needs to practice 21st century statecraft, following an open and inclusive policymaking process for building ‘antifragile’ institutions. The government must establish effective, meaningful channels for organized citizen participation in policymaking, monitoring, and feedback. The government must also recognize and acknowledge the value of informed critics in improving their performance.

Our tried and tested disaster management strategies should be emboldened and reoriented towards action on a broader range of potential shocks. The government should take a learning approach to assess why and how it has succeeded with disaster management and apply the learning to prepare for future crises.

Finally, local governments, agencies, and ministries must be empowered. They must have the operational freedom to customize interventions based on local needs; The government must eschew the strategy of one size fits all. Adaptive governance processes and decentralized authority can cope with contingent and local needs. A learning and improving state, with a functional feedback system—empowered civil servants and politicians equipped to tackle crises with flexibility and authority—can successfully cope with a systemic crisis like COVID-19.