Six months ago, nobody did imagine how our world - and our lives - would be thrown into turmoil by COVID-19. The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst of humanity. Heartwarming acts of resilience, inventiveness, solidarity and kindness - we have seen these all over the world.

The world spent six months since the World Health Organisation (WHO) had received the first reports of a cluster of cases of pneumonia of unknown cause in China. The six-month anniversary of the outbreak coincides with reaching 10 million cases and 500,000 deaths.

Bangladesh, as of June 30, so far recorded 1,847 deaths with the highest-ever single-day death toll - 64- on the day marking the six-month anniversary globally. The number of total infected people in the country is now over 1,45,483.

Amid growing impact on overall economy, Cosmos Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Cosmos Group, organised a webinar as part of Cosmos Dialogue, titled "Impact of COVID-19 on Bangladesh: Prognosis for Recovery" on June 26 connecting experts from home and abroad virtually.

Chairman of Cosmos Foundation Enayetullah Khan delivered the welcome speech at the webinar chaired by Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury, the Principal Research Fellow at the Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, and former Foreign Affairs Adviser to Bangladesh's previous caretaker government.

Prominent economist and Chairman of Policy Research Institute (PRI) Dr Zaidi Sattar talked about the macroeconomic impact of COVID-19 on Bangladesh and prognosis for recovery.

Prof Haider Khan, John Evans Distinguished Professor of Economics at the University of Denver, highlighted the geopolitical implications of COVID-19 and challenges for Bangladesh.

Muhammed Aziz Khan, founder and Chairman of Summit Power International Limited, Summit Holdings Ltd and IPCO Developments (Bangladesh) Limited, talked about the impact of COVID-19 on infrastructures in Bangladesh.

Executive Director, Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE) and former adviser to a previous caretaker government, Rasheda K Choudhury spoke with focus on the impact of COVID-19 on women and education in Bangladesh and its recovery plans.

President of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) Dr Rubana Huq discussed the impact of COVID-19 on the readymade garment sector in Bangladesh.

Cosmos Foundation Executive Director Nahar Khan delivered the concluding remarks.

Experts at the virtual dialogue discussed ways to convert the current challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic into opportunities through proper recovery measures, keeping Bangladesh on the right track of development.

They said Bangladesh must pursue it as there would be sunshine amid clouds that the COVID-19 brought which is truly a global catastrophe.

Gradual Recovery

"The catastrophe is truly global. This is a hill we'll have to climb. Waiting will not make it smaller," said Dr Iftekhar adding that the recovery will be there gradually as recovery is a process.

He laid emphasis on converting the challenges to opportunities through joint efforts.

Dr Zaidi Sattar said it is pandemic globally, not an epidemic and the government of Bangladesh was very quick to respond without wasting any time.

He highlighted the impact on the Bangladesh economy as its economy is well-integrated with the global economy.

The economist said there will be need for more fiscal resources and cash transfers as many people will need them. "Policymakers are trying their best."

Talking about recovery, he said it needs to be seen what is going on externally and domestically and mentioned that economic recovery cannot happen with "imbalance" incentives.

Zaidi Sattar laid emphasis on export diversification, more investment and ensuring balanced incentives for the relevant sectors.

Dr Rubana said it was almost like a nightmare and for them it was a critical journey when they saw RMG export orders worth over US$ 3.15 billion were cancelled or held up.

Responding to a question, she said they have negotiated almost 48 percent of the cancelled orders to be reinstated but the payment terms are still vague.

Opportunities Aplenty

Aziz Khan said there will be huge opportunities for Bangladesh in the post-Covid-19 scenario that the country needs to utilise.

Talking about the impact of COVID-19 on infrastructures in Bangladesh at a virtual Cosmos Dialogue on Friday night, Aziz Khan said the pandemic will bring new life and new culture.

He said here is shortage in demand and supply and this will encourage other countries to supply to Bangladesh and also take goods from the country.

"Bangladesh will be in a much stronger position to negotiate with the importers of garments which is a basic goods", he added. "We will have possibility to have better contracts".

Describing different infrastructural development in the country, Aziz Khan said Bangladesh now generates 20,000 MW of electricity, Padma Bridge and three ports are coming up which will connect the country with the rest of the world.

"Many African countries do not have port facilities for which they have to suffer a lot, but Bangladesh has got that opportunity," he said adding that metro rail, underground tunnel projects are being implemented which will create new opportunities for the country.

Aziz Khan said the government should look into the portfolio infrastructures as how they could be implemented in a faster manner.

Mentioning about the country's financial position, Aziz Khan said the country is now in a better position in the foreign exchange reserves as it is now $35 billion.

He said Bangladesh's large import is the energy and its cost will be half in post-COVID-19 era. "It means if we have to spend $4 billion, now we will need $2 billion."

"So I see the biggest opportunity in this regards," he added.

Commenting on education sector, the businessman said it is now more dependent on internet connectivity.

He said the country has installed 70,000 km optical fiber in last 12 years and it could be upgraded to 3G and 4G and 5G to provide better connectivity.

Aziz Khan said already 95 percent people have access to telephony that another huge thing that happens in infrastructure

"With these telephony available, we can extend it to 4G and 5G and we can find it for ensuring access to medical service for the people", he said.

"If we can properly provide education through internet we can move up. China is coming up fast as because their people are educated", the businessman said.

He said people are more dependent on conventional methods of education. "But if we can give it through the internet and computers and telephone, it will be much more useful."

He said Bangladesh has the least number of doctors and least number of hospitals per capita.

Now the government is looking for converting all the upazila health complexes into hospitals that will be huge upside to provided social infrastructures, he mentioned.

Aziz Khan said COVID-19 is certainly bad for all but these opportunities are the stars in the darkness.

There could be sunshine amid clouds for which Bangladesh must pursue, he said.

Geopolitical Impacts

Prof Haider Khan said Bangladesh needs to keep friendly relationship both in rhetoric and in practice with its neighbouring countries.

But, he added, Bangladesh also needs to practise time-honoured and strategic good relationship on the move which is called "balancing".

The expert said it is a very obvious geopolitical fact that Bangladesh is surrounded by three sides - with lands by one country - India.

"We have another country which is not always friendly to us - Myanmar on the south and then we have the Bay of Bengal but we cannot control much of our Bay of Bengal, and we should remember that as well," Haider Khan said.

He said there are basically several balancing powers. "We have the US, the EU but more importantly, I would say we have China and Japan, especially with China as an emerging power. We need to monitor very carefully on dialogues amicably but substantively with China, and Japan at the same time. And who knows - we would be able to play a positive role in advancing East Asia, being a bridge country."

Haider Khan said they should send a message to the government that they are patriots who are willing to help it negotiate at this very difficult period now, and in the future. "We are ready to give all our expertise for these purposes."

Responding to question, he said being a realist he does not think that the US and China can be decoupled so easily - especially the US from China.

Even in this crisis, it turns out that a lot of important medicines come to the US from China, he said.

Education: Comprehensive Recovery Plan

Edcationist Rasheda K. Chowdhury has signaled five major consequences, including large scale dropouts, amid disruption of educational activities due to COVID-19 and sought a comprehensive recovery plan involving teachers.

"It has to be a comprehensive recovery plan. In any recovery plan (for the education sector), teachers need to be involved," said Rasheda. Anything otherwise, and whatever has been achieved till now in the education sector will be at risk.

Apart from 'possible' (since official numbers are not published yet) large scale dropouts, she also mentioned a possible concurrent increase in child labour, or early marriage for girls which will consequently increase early pregnancy and increasing malnutrition.

The educationist said the COVID-19 is impacting on everything and there is need for COVID-19 recovery plan in education system. "There has to be investment."

Earlier, Rasheda noted that their hunch of learning loss has been proven correct by recent research saying they have feared that alternative education would not reach everybody.

She strongly suggested that a solution cannot be found without involvement of teachers but their advice is being ignored.

"No one is discussing with teachers at the policy-making stage...Local education administrations need to be involved to restore education and reduce learning losses," she added.

Rasheda highlighted the educational deficit between Bangladesh and other countries citing UN statistics.

"Globally 1.2 billion learners are still out of educational institutions. Developed countries have reached out to those among their own populations but in Bangladesh we have 40 million students, ranging from pre-primary to higher education level, who are yet to be reached" she said.

She noted that the government has been trying four methods to reduce learning loss after the closure of educational institutes due to COVID-19 pandemic --- televised lessons, online courses, radio broadcast and through mobile devices.

"(Despite the effort) we have not been able to reach out to large number of vulnerable student groups including women and ethnic minorities," said the educationist.

The CAMPE Director said girls will be hard hit all the time due to the pandemic and gender based violence inside home will increase as well.

She mentioned that in order to address the possible consequences, experts have been proposing formation of a COVID-19 response and recovery team solely for the education sector.

Social safety net programmes should be introduced in a larger scale for education sector such as school meal programme to deal with malnutrition, she said.

She condemned lack in policymaking highlighting that teachers are not being included in any type of recovery plans.

"We've talked about recovering many sectors but teachers are not part of it, and they are being ignored. At one point we have to open schools. But are the teachers, students and parents ready?" she said adding that a comprehensive solution is needed to tackle these issues.

Digital Divide

Rasheda said there has to be investment and there should be focus on human capacity enhancement.

"We need skilled manpower," she said adding that digital divide needs to be minimized.

The educatinst said this could be another opportunity for Bangladesh if proper steps are taken making the best use of digital opportunity.

She also noted that now is the proper opportunity to use the digital means to develop skills and reskill Bangladeshi young people including women.

"However, the majority of them might not get the chance because of the costs. There have to be investments made in skilling, reskilling and human capacity enhancement...we can deal with economic crisis, but if we lose one generation of learners that will be a huge loss," she added.

Rasheda highlighted that country's SME sector is in grave danger because most of the workforce here are women who have been hit the hardest by the pandemic.

A recent study by Brac Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD) showed a staggering 80 percent drop in total time students spend studying in Bangladesh since the closure of educational institutes.

The study says they use two hours in a day for study in average at present which was around 10 hours previously before the vacation announced for coronavirus pandemic.

Findings from the study show that self-study hours have also declined significantly during the same period.

Enayetullah Khan said they are experiencing a simultaneous disruption both in supply and demand chains.

"When we will exit this crisis, the investors psychology will be changed, business will be changed and consumption will be changed," he said.

The world, in the post-COVID-19 era, Khan said, will be different one and the recovery will come in different ways.

Nahar Khan said as they can perceive, COVID-19 will remain a continuing challenge which will require a continuing response.

She said the Cosmos Foundation will host several such virtual discussions as part of a series focused on this issue.

"Our main goal would be to ensure that despite this challenge, and any others of this kind, we can focus on Talent Development, Re-skilling, Re-tooling and Re-education and also build our intangible assets and social capital in order to tackle the challenges of Covid-19 so Bangladesh can continue its journey along the path of progress and prosperity," said Nahar Khan.

Dhaka Courier was the knowledge partner of the event.

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