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From bustling streets to lockdown: Bangladesh and the UN mobilize to fight COVID-19: a UN Resident Coordinator blog

26 April 2020 - The UN is working closely with the authorities, civil society and the private sector in Bangladesh, as the south Asian country braces for the COVID-19 pandemic. By the UN Resident Coordinator in Bangladesh, Mia Seppo.

The capital city of Bangladesh, Dhaka, where I have been living and working for the past three years, is normally a bustling and fast-paced metropolis of some 18 million people, animated by street life and high-end restaurants, expensive cars and rickshaws, culture, fashion, slums, the call to prayer sounding from loudspeakers.

But as I write this, the hospitable and warm Dhakanites are at home, the roads are virtually empty, the city is quiet. I can hear a beggar asking for money on the street where I live. That is a first during my time in Dhaka. One of the most densely populated countries in the world is preparing to fight COVID-19, the virus which has wreaked havoc and death around the world.

With half of the global population in some form of lockdown, the virus is moving from developed countries with functioning healthcare systems to densely populated countries with weak healthcare systems. By all measures, Bangladesh is one of the countries that is of concern, but we need to react with calm and reasoning; panic will only compound the challenges.

Mobilizing resources

We have all learned a new vernacular; imported cases, cluster of cases, community transmission. Bangladesh is now at early stages of community transmission, with the virus spreading from person-to-person. The present lockdown and physical distancing measures taken by the Government offer a window to strengthen the readiness of the healthcare sector.

The UN has seized this opportunity and been working with government counterparts to mobilize resources to respond to the pandemic; from procuring vital personal protection equipment (PPE) to protect healthcare workers, training healthcare workers, scaling up testing, contact tracing and isolation and ensuring food security during lockdowns.

We are playing a key role by supporting government communications efforts to reach households with accurate, potentially lifesaving information about COVID-19. The false and baseless information about preventing COVID-19 which has spread through some communities here, is putting lives at risk.

High income and low-income countries are facing this crisis simultaneously, an unprecedented situation in modern times. They are competing for the same supplies as global delivery chains break down and as the shortage of medical equipment and supplies worsens. This calls for innovative and local solutions where possible.

Bangladesh is in the fortunate position of having strong manufacturing and private sectors which can be mobilized to fill gaps in the production of essential supplies including hygiene products. Civil society has mobilized swiftly and multiple networks of volunteers have stepped up their effort to support vulnerable groups. I'm not only referring to BRAC, an international development organization based in Bangladesh, but to a myriad of NGOs working at the grassroots level as trusted partners, raising awareness, delivering food to those who need it most and monitoring the delivery of services. And crucially, drawing attention to stigma and discrimination before it's too late. As always, NGOs and civil society are key partners in the response.

Safety nets and additional support

Bangladesh has a thriving private sector, a growing middle class, and is a country known for development innovation, but self-isolation at home, which is the best way to fight this pandemic, is a luxury many can ill afford. The Government was quick to announce extra support in addition to existing social safety nets, especially food, for those struggling during the lockdown. In the short-term, the UN is working with the Government to ensure those relying on a daily wage and working in informal economies have food on the table during this uncertain lockdown period. In the long-term, we are working with government counterparts on an early socio-economic recovery to ensure development goals can still be reached and peoples' livelihoods protected.

The ready-made garment sector, responsible for 80 per cent of Bangladesh's export earnings and which brings millions of female workers into the formal economy, has also been hit hard. It isn't only about the economics though. For women in abusive relationships, being confined at home in times of anxiety and uncertainty increases the risks of domestic violence.

We are prioritising gender-based violence services in COVID-19 affected communities and an expansion of services to prevent and respond to cases of gender-based violence; more shelters, dedicated counselling hotlines, and psychosocial support. In times like this, people living in already vulnerable situations become even more vulnerable and any response needs to ensure that no one is left behind. We need to ensure that the needs of women and the informal sector are considered in recovery plans.

Kindness, compassion and fearlessness

No one knows how the next few months will play out globally or in the countries where we live and work. What we do know, is that any response to this pandemic is only as strong as its weakest link, the weakest health system. It's more important than ever for communities, both local and global, to join together in kindness, compassion, and solidarity, so we can support each other through this crisis. We may come out of it bruised, but I hope also committed to building a better world.

Let me close with the words of Bangladesh's Nobel laureate, Rabindranath Tagore: "Let us not pray to be sheltered from dangers, but to be fearless when facing them." And fearless and determined we must be.

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