Bangladesh faces twin crises as coronavirus deals new blow to flood-battered nation

A family takes temporary shelter at the community clinic after the landfall of cyclone Amphan in Assasuni, Satkhira district, Bangladesh. Taken on 5 June 2020.

Zabed Hasnain Chowdhury | SOPA Images/LightRocket | Getty Images

Bangladesh is confronting a twin crisis of extreme weather disasters, and a pandemic that’s killed thousands so far.

In addition to battling its heaviest rainfall in recent years, the South Asian nation is also struggling to contain the coronavirus outbreak that has hampered recovery efforts and dealt a blow to job prospects.

The people who are most vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic are the same people who are “living on the front lines of climate change,” said Afsari Begum, senior specialist for disaster risk reduction at the development charity, Practical Action. 

“We’re concerned that a lot of people will be pushed further into poverty because of Coronavirus. If communities are battered by intense storms and floods that destroy or damage homes, agricultural land, schools and hospitals, it will only make things worse,” she said in a report commissioned by the Zurich Flood Resilience Alliance, which aims to help countries build their flood resilience.

Extreme weather

Bangladesh’s annual monsoon season typically lasts from June to September, according to official ministry sources.

In May, Cyclone Amphan — said to be Bangladesh’s most intense cyclone in two decades — devastated coastal villages, and left half a million people homeless while cutting off another million from power.

To top it off, Bangladesh endured “its worst flood in a decade” with persistently heavy monsoon rains that began in June, the country’s Flood Forecasting and Warning Centre chief, Arifuzzaman Bhuiyan, told the Agence France-Presse.

Faced with widespread unemployment on top of intermittent lockdown restrictions between late March to early August, millions of locals remain stranded with little access to food and health care, while exposed to waterborne diseases in their waterlogged, overcrowded homes. 

Desperate local conditions have made public health measures like social distancing and increased hand washing difficult, said Hasina Rahman, interim country director for Bangladesh at the international humanitarian non-profit Concern Worldwide. She said that people can’t even afford food — much less soap, hand sanitizers and masks.

Prior to the pandemic, many of Bangladesh’s rural poor traditionally coped with seasonal flooding by finding jobs in nearby cities like garment production or rickshaw pulling, and returning to their farms when water levels receded. Others used to head overseas to find work in sectors like construction and domestic labor for longer periods of time.

We see desperate workers willing to accept very low wages in extremely dangerous conditions, with no serious health and safety protections, let alone social distancing measures or personal protective equipment.

Jon Hartough

country director for Bangladesh, Solidarity Center

However, this year, economic stagnation and job losses amid Covid-19 have forced workers to return to their flood-prone villages, where there are even fewer economic opportunities. This has devastated remittance flows from overseas and Bangladesh’s urban centers.

Many more of Bangladesh’s rural poor are afraid to take shelter at evacuation centers, with some even opting to live on their rooftops to escape the waters instead, said Begum, who said they fear losing what little land they own.

Yet, their tenuous grip on their sole life asset is steadily slipping away. Over the years, rising sea levels have resulted in fresh water supply being infiltrated by salt water and affecting agricultural production. In addition, soil erosion has ravaged their land due to climate change, forcing them to increasingly prioritize fresh water for irrigation and their livestock, while traveling further to find safe drinking water for their own households. 

‘Vicious cycle’ of poverty and disaster

After some time, these poor people … stopped caring about what is going to happen. They see really very little difference between starvation and dying from the virus.

Afsari Begum

Practical Action

When Bangladesh reopened hundreds of garment factories in April, thousands of desperate workers flocked back to overcrowded industrial areas, including the capital of Dhaka, which currently has the bulk of the country’s reported coronavirus infections.

“We see desperate workers willing to accept very low wages in extremely dangerous conditions, with no serious health and safety protections, let alone social distancing measures or personal protective equipment,” said Jon Hartough, country director for Bangladesh at the labor advocacy non-profit firm, Solidarity Center.

“It is a vicious cycle of poverty, disaster and recovery,” said Rahman, adding that the cumulative effect of one shock after another is taking its toll on Bangladeshi locals, whose meager life savings have dried up.

Begum agreed, saying: “After some time, these poor people … stopped caring about what is going to happen. They see really very little difference between starvation and dying from the virus.”

Uncertainty of climate change

For now, there is at least hope that the coronavirus pandemic will ease if a vaccine is successfully developed. Bangladesh has reported over 337,500 coronavirus cases and more than 4,700 deaths so far, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

However, the battle against climate change is much less certain.

“Many more such crisis moments will come,” said Begum, adding that there are more “frequent and intense” climate disasters taking place.

The latest figures from the World Resources Institute show that China accounts for more than 26% of global emissions, the U.S. contributes 14%, while the European Union accounts for 9.6%. Bangladesh accounted for less than 0.35% of global greenhouse gas emissions in 2014, according to the country’s ministry of forestry and environment.

Local officials and humanitarian aid organizations have urged the global community to honor the 2015 Paris Agreement more closely, which included a combined pledge of $100 billion in funds by 2020 to invest in vulnerable nations’ resilience against climate change.

“Sadly, not enough of this money is actually reaching the people on the frontlines,” said Begum. “Developed countries are actually failing to keep their promises. They are failing to allocate climate finances to the poorest nations.”

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