“It’s a disastrous situation. It’s an economic tsunami beyond our control”
It seems Bangladesh had been ignoring the oft repeated advice of not putting all eggs in one basket, and the time for reckoning is here now.
Bangladesh can be a perfect textbook case of how exclusively depending on a single sector can put a country's economy under severe stress.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made it abundantly clear to the garment industry that accounted for 84 percent of the country's exports worth $40 billion last fiscal year. The industry has already faced cancellation and holding off orders worth nearly $3 billion due to the impact of global pandemic.
Any negative impact on the industry also affects the backward linkage industries – 450 spinning mills, 850 weaving mills and 250 dyeing factories – where some 10 lakh people are employed.
There are many more businesses and industries, like packaging and other accessories factories, related to the business of the garment sector.
But that is just the tip of the iceberg.
There are 59 banks and 46 general insurers that rely heavily on the garment sector for their businesses.
Industry insiders said a big chunk of a bank's business comes from the textile and allied sectors. Marine insurance that depends on import cargo accounts for one-third of the general insurance's total premium a year.
Tens of thousands of buses and trucks keep the wheels moving on the highways, connecting the business hubs, keeping the shelves of the superstores stocked, the corner grocery shops available for daily needs and the kitchen markets humming.
With the pandemic and subsequent shutdown, transport may be the hardest hit sector. The number of trucks and lorries that had increased significantly with the pace of the country's nearly $100 billion exports and imports – now remain off the roads, making a few lakh people jobless.
There are around one lakh trucks and covered vans in the country and two lakh people – one driver and a helper in each truck – employed in the sector.
"Many of our trucks are now sitting idle. Many drivers have already left for their homes scared of the disease," said Mokbul Ahmed, president of Bangladesh Covered Van Truck Ponyo Paribahan Malik Association.
Several million women garment workers with their increased income and better lifestyles have boosted the country's cosmetics business and other allied sectors. These business sectors will also be affected negatively if the pandemic prolongs.
An economic tsunami
"It's a disastrous situation. It's an economic tsunami beyond our control," said KM Rezaul Hasanat, chairman of Viyellatex Group, one of the largest apparel exporters in the country.
But this same businessman was very positive even after nearly 8 percent negative growth in exports in the first five months of the current fiscal year. When export data came out in the first week of December 2019, he was quite optimistic that the country would be able to achieve the target by the year-end.
Now this man is saying, he is completely pessimistic about the future performance of his business as over 75 percent orders have been held off and cancelled. His concern is also with the next season's orders as global retailers will be reluctant to place orders if the virus continues for long.
He is comparing the situation with the tsunami as he knows how devastating the impacts on apparels could be on other sectors, be it backward linkages, transport, banks or insurance.
Hasanat said Vietnam will not be as affected as Bangladesh. The Southeast Asian country has a good basket of products for exports. Garments account for only one-fifth of Vietnam's total exports.
DBL Group, which is another leading apparel exporter with exposure in ceramics, pharmaceuticals and telecommunications, is increasingly becoming worried with the spread and impacts of the virus.
Goods ready for shipment have been held off and there are no new orders for the coming season, said MA Jabbar, managing director of the group. Under this situation, he said he won't be able to run his factories for more than a week.
"We employ 37,000 people. It is uncertain if we will be able to pay staff salaries for this month. I am concerned with next month's payments just ahead of Eid," he said.
Mizanur Rahman, chairman of Meghna Group, the country's largest bicycle exporter, is also facing holding off orders by his European buyers. But he is more concerned with his packaging factory that depends on the garment sector.
Insurance in 'terrible condition'
Md Khaled Mamun, chief executive officer of Reliance Insurance, said "We are in terrible condition".
He said his company's income from marine insurance went down by Tk10 crore just in the first two months of this year. The amount would become even higher at the end of March, he fears.
Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh, fears about massive job losses in the aftermath of the coronavirus.
It is not only the apparel sector, he said, many other sectors, such as hotels, restaurants, transporters, the self-employed like the small shop owners on footpaths and rickshaw-pullers will be hit hard.
"Loss of jobs would be very high as some 1 crore to 1.5 crore people may become jobless," said Mansur, also a former senior official of the International Monetary Fund.
He advised the government to take massive fiscal measures to offset the impact of job losses.
MA Halim Chowdhury, managing director of Pubali Bank is, however, hopeful about a turnaround of Bangladesh's apparel export.
"We export basic things. So, consumers have to buy these things," said Chowdhury.