Almost three-fourths of the workforce have become jobless and another big portion have retained their jobs but without pay
Sonia is a 25-year-old gym instructor in the city. Her small earnings could barely see her family of three including her mother and younger brother through, yet they could at least have three meals a day.
Then came the coronavirus pandemic and her Dhanmondi gym shuttered down. It has been over 40 days since she is without a job.
Desperate, she started calling her gym clients Saturday, pleading.
One such call came to my colleague Jebun Nesa Alo.
"Apa, please apnara gym e ashen, na holey gym khulbey na. Amra chakri ferot pabo na. Amra na kheye achhi (Apa please come to the gym otherwise the doors will not open. We'll not get back our jobs. We are literally starving)," she said.
But no one wants to take the risk. In the enclosed atmosphere of a gym, the virus would be more contagious.
Liza (not her real name) is an ethnic woman who has worked for Persona in Dhanmondi since the very first days of the beauty care salon.
She is also out of a job now. In the time of pandemic, no one cares about getting their eye-brows plucked or having a pedicure.
"I have toiled all these years to build the brand of Persona. But when it closed, I did not get any salary. The owner said we will get some money to buy food. That money is yet to come," she said.
Liza lives with her brother in a rented house for Tk18,000.
"The house owner has threatened to throw me out," said Liza. "Only yesterday, the management asked a few of the hair cutting section to join. But I am not one of those. I don't know hairdo."
"We could not give a penny to our girls in the last one month," said Kaniz Almas Khan, CEO of Persona.
Persona closed its shutter in March after paying full salary and in the next month a part, she said.
But in the third month, it became difficult to continue paying as business completely dried up, she said.
"We will not be able to pay until getting a loan from the bank but the process is going on and it seems they will release the money only after Eid," she said.
In this situation, many of the skilled hand girls are switching the industry to survive during the crisis, she added.
Liza and Sonia form part of the statistics that a think-tank SANEM came out with that says the current economic disruption is hurting the 20 million youth workers in Bangladesh.
And they also make up the 33 million people who will fall into poverty, thus taking the poverty rate to 40 percent. And that is counting the minimum threshold level at $1.9 a day per person or say Tk170 taka. If you raise it to $3.2 as a lower middle income poverty rate, Bangladesh already had 58 percent people below the poverty line.
But with the pandemic setting in, people have lost as much as 75 percent of their income a Brac study shows. Almost three-fourths of the workforce have become jobless and another big portion have retained their jobs but without pay.
And that is a big shock because Bangladesh had grittily come out of the so called basket case that it was once notoriously dubbed by Henry Kissinger. Its fight was focusing public spending on poverty reducing projects and the combined efforts of numerous NGOs who had supplied microcredit and training to millions across the country.
An opening of the economy helped boost investment and growth and in an unjust society where wealth is too unevenly spread, the benefits finally distilled downwards in the old-fashioned trickle-down development model.
People had money. People ate more. And soon, the advertisements changed in the media – they were no more of how to get fatter but how to slim down. The gyms and beauty salons proliferated and Lizas and Sonias found new vocations to make a living.
Now, the get-fatter advertisement days are again ahead. And like these two women, thousands have seen their incomes dwindle, by as much as 25 percent to even 50 percent or more.
This sudden loss of income has touched not only the blue-collar workers. Highly educated professionals like this doctor, who did not wish to be identified, have also been shocked with surprise pay cuts. She was living a comfortable life with her job at BIRDEM and her own practice.
But as the pandemic bit, she had to close her office. Patients had vanished. But more than that, she is a first-line doctor and that makes her more vulnerable to infection than any other doctors. So she had to shut down her regular evening office.
And only yesterday, she was surprised to find that BIRDEM had paid her 50 percent of her salary without any prior notice. All other doctors also reported being slapped with this surprise pay cut without any warnings.
When contacted, Director General BIRDEM, Professor Zafar Ahmed Latif said that the pay cut notice would be communicated to the affected doctors today, a post facto action that will have little consolation for the affected doctors.
So a life at 100 percent and more now has to be slashed to 50 percent. The doctor does not have an answer as to how to do it.
All that these people can do now is one thing – first, chop off the non-essential spendings. No need for a visit to the exact beauty salon where Liza works. Her clients can do their own eye-brows and pedicures. So Liza will have to sit idle and jobless for an indefinite period and uncertain future.
Then they will have to cut on essentials. Liza is already looking for cheaper accommodation. Maybe right in a slum. She has given up fish and meat. Bhartas (mashed potato) and shutki (dried fish) are economical because if you put in a bit more salt and lots of chilli in them, a pinch of the stuff can see you through your meals.
The overall global outlook does not bode well. The major economies will fall into depressions. Bangladesh's economy cannot remain unscathed in such times and so nobody knows how long it will take to get Liza and Sonia back on track again with their previous jobs. It is an easy guess whether their firms will go bust because those are the ones that will never get any stimulus package from the government.
And if the economy is hobbled, the doctor sees no point in restarting her practice.