Author: Ali Riaz, Illinois State University
The COVID-19 pandemic was pivotal in shaping the politics and economy of Bangladesh in 2020. The official death count remains lower than in other South Asian countries. Yet COVID-19 will have long-term health, political and economic impacts. It has laid bare the economy’s structural weaknesses and accelerated the growing authoritarianism of the incumbent Bangladesh Awami League government. It was also coupled with two other pandemics: persecuting government critics and widespread corruption.
Bangladesh’s government underestimated the severity of COVID-19 and was ill-prepared before it hit the country. As infections grew, the public health system was overwhelmed and health workers were not receiving adequate support, including personal protective equipment. In mid-March, the government was instead focussed on celebrating the centennial of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman — Bangladesh’s founding president and the father of incumbent Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina.
Years of neglecting the healthcare system and corruption worsened the situation. COVID-19 testing was kept intentionally low to portray low case numbers. A half-hearted lockdown — described as ‘general holiday’ without clear instructions — and the absence of a comprehensive health strategy aggravated the situation. The government limited access to COVID-19 information by monitoring the media and silencing those speaking up about the dangers of COVID-19, including doctors and nurses. A government-engineered pandemic of persecution ensued. Journalists, human rights activists, students, teachers and members of civil society were arrested and thrown into jail under the draconian Digital Security Act.
The government’s initial response to the economic hardship, especially to low-income households, was focussed on providing subsidised food under the Open Market Sales social security program. After severe criticism, it also started a cash-transfer program. But both were marred by corruption from ruling party leaders and local administrators. A third pandemic — one of corruption — permeated through the country. Corruption in the procurement and distribution of medical supplies, fake COVID-19 tests, substandard masks in hospitals and inflated pricing of donor-funded emergency projects ran rampant.
The government announced 21 stimulus packages equivalent to 4.3 per cent of GDP to soften the blow from the COVID-19-induced economic shock. But these failed to reach those who needed it the most, while those connected to the ruling party benefited. As of late November, only 38 per cent of the stimulus had been disbursed. Further, many ready-made garment (RMG) sector workers complained of not getting their salaries, although owners of the factories were the beneficiaries of early stimulus packages.
Poverty is estimated to have doubled and vulnerabilities in the middle class have been exposed. Despite some early signs of economic recovery due to high volumes of foreign remittances and exports in the RMG sector, the pace has not been as dramatic as the government would have hoped.
Bangladesh’s politics remain firmly under the control of the ruling party due to government coercion and the failure of the opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party to build a movement. Still the government faced an uncomfortable situation when a retired military official was killed by police in Bangladesh’s southern district of Teknaf. The extrajudicial killing — allegedly to cover the region’s drug trade and the involvement of the police and local leaders — highlighted the extent of extrajudicial killings perpetrated by law enforcement agencies. Yet the government flatly denies this allegation. Between January and September 2020, at least 213 people have been victims of extrajudicial killings.
Opposition Bangladesh National Party Chairperson Khaleda Zia’s sentence was suspended for six months in March 2020 on health grounds and extended for another six months the following September. She is currently serving a 17-year sentence on two separate graft cases. The conditional release allows Zia to be at home but prohibits her from participating in political activities.
By the end of 2020, conservative Islamists under the leadership of the Hefazat-e-Islam, an Islamist advocacy group, reappeared on the political scene. Islamists compelled the government to respond to French President Emmanuel Macron’s comments on press freedom. This was the first time in Bangladesh’s history that Islamists dictated an issue of foreign affairs to a sitting government. The Islamists’ position against the construction of a sculpture of Sheikh Mujib also put the government in an uneasy situation. Islamists demanded the removal of all sculptures in the country and the government’s appeasing stand revealed its dependence on Islamists.
In foreign affairs, Bangladesh’s relations with India — a close ally of the present government — were strained as its relationship with China grew warmer. The much-awaited Teesta water sharing deal with India has still not been signed although India has been promising it for years. Bangladesh requested an almost US$1 billion loan for a comprehensive management and restoration project on the Teesta river and US$16 billion for 26 projects from China in 2020.
The United States became concerned about the Bangladesh–China relationship and adopted a defence diplomacy policy to enmesh Bangladesh in its Indo-Pacific strategy. A call from Pakistan’s Prime Minister Imran Khan and Hasina’s meeting with a Pakistani envoy were also signs of a thawing relationship between Bangladesh and Pakistan.
In 2021 Bangladesh’s government must focus on addressing the health challenges of the pandemic alongside issues of governance, particularly the persecution of critics, the imposing of censorship, and controlling widespread corruption. Improving public healthcare capacity will also be critical to ensuring a successful rollout of any COVID-19 vaccine and spurring an economic recovery.
Ali Riaz is Distinguished Professor of Political Science at Illinois State University, non-resident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council and President of the American Institute of Bangladesh Studies (AIBS).
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2020 in review and the year ahead.