A 25-year-old girl who had been working as a gym instructor for the last 10 years has now been left with no option but to consider resorting to prostitution for a living
In just four months, Priti's (not real name) livelihood has entirely changed.
The 25-year-old girl who was always busy instructing clients in exercise activities at different fitness centres has now been left with no option but to consider resorting to prostitution for a living.
"I am now looking for a lonely rich man who needs company. I have no other choice as I am badly in need of money," she said.
She asked this correspondent over the phone to help her find someone like that.
This is how the informal sector's shutdown, triggered by the novel coronavirus pandemic, has devastated the livelihoods of many people.
"I have not been getting my salary for the last four months. My family depends on my earnings," she said. "Now, how can I lead my life without money?" she said.
Priti used to earn around Tk30,000 per month working as a fitness trainer at two gyms, but the Covid-19 situation has led to a complete loss of income for her.
"I am in serious trouble. I was looking for another job but could not manage due to the pandemic. You have no idea what I did to get my salary but I was not even paid a penny."
"They could have given me at least half of my wages, but they did not. I had been supporting my family by borrowing from friends, but now no one wants to help as all are passing through a crisis."
Priti has a boyfriend. They were planning to get married just before the novel coronavirus outbreak. But the financial crisis has shattered their dream. Now, she wants to end the relationship as her beau – who is working in the same sector – is also experiencing a financial crisis and cannot support her.
"I am feeling bad to part ways with him because we were in a relationship for a long time, but I am helpless now as I am badly in need of money to support my family. Can you help me find someone who I can make love with in exchange for money," she told this correspondent.
Priti said, "My mother used to give Arabic tuition and contribute to our family. Her earnings have also stalled for the last four months. My father has a small roadside grocery shop near our residence in Dhaka. However, he is now stuck at our village home due to the pandemic. We are telling him not to return to Dhaka because of his physical illness. As he is now at our village home with no income, we have to send him money."
Priti lives in the capital's Rayer Bazar with her parents and two younger brothers – one is an addict and the other is a student.
The monthly rent of the two-room flat in which Priti's family lives is Tk12,000, however, she has not been able to pay the landlord for the last four months.
"Sometimes, I stay overnight at my friend's home to avoid all this chaos going on at my home for a while. Every day, the landlord comes and asks us to leave if we cannot pay the rent."
Even in March when the government imposed the shutdown, Priti never imagined that it would last so long. She did not get her March salary from the fitness centres she works at. She thought the situation would return to normal within a week or two.
However, the shutdown was enforced for over two months, giving Priti a very different experience in her life.
"I am now dealing with a lot of things. In my entire life, I have never experienced anything like what I learned from reality in the last four months. I could not even buy food for my family every day."
"I spent all my savings, amounting to around Tk1 lakh, for the treatment of my drug-addict brother."
"Gyms have reopened following the withdrawal of the shutdown, but I cannot reach them because I don't have rickshaw fare. What is more, the gym authorities also cannot give me my outstanding salaries as they have hardly any members amid the pandemic," she said.
Meanwhile, the long stay at home due to the pandemic has triggered feelings of anxiety in Priti.
"I never sit idly. I was always busy with my work but now I have nothing to do. If I can earn, my family will survive," she wailed.
"I am so frustrated. I never imagined I would have to face these problems in my life," she said.
From gym instructor to unemployed
Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Priti's life was going on smoothly.
She would usually get up by 7am, have breakfast and go to a gym at 9pm to train members. She would work there till 1pm, then would take a personal gym class for an hour and then head to another gym for a six-hour shift from 3pm.
She used to carry her lunchbox from home. Usually, she could return home between 10pm and 11pm every day. She would buy daily essentials from a kitchen market while returning home.
However, Covid-19 has put the brakes on her life. She now wakes up at 12 noon and passes days by doing household chores and cooking for family members.
"I have lost everything to the novel coronavirus. I cannot give personal training, and also have no job."
"I am trying to offer online yoga classes, but people are not very interested."
When she used to get her salary, Priti would give a portion of it to her mother to meet the family's monthly expenses. However, for the last four months, they have been buying only rice and vegetables. Earlier, they would have had meat and fish items twice a week on their food menu, but they have not had those items once in the last several months.
In 2010, soon after completing SSC, Priti started to work in a fitness centre of Kingshuk Bahumukhi Samabaya Samity in Dhaka city. At the time she had no idea about gyms. Later, she became interested in building her career as a bodybuilder. She started training there.
After working at the gym for a few years, she went to work for a fashion house outlet as a manager. She worked there for two years. Later, she left that job and came back to a gym of Persona to train people. Then, she decided to continue her career in gyms.
Slowly, she was getting popular as there were only a limited number of female gym instructors. With the growth of the new industry, Priti made her position stronger in this field elevating her earnings to over Tk30,000 from only Tk5,000 at the start of her career in 2010.
Her salary increased six times in 10 years, giving her a comfortable life despite not having graduated. But Covid-19 has taken her living standard to what it was 10 years ago.
A recent survey of the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies reflected the crisis people like Priti in the informal sector are going through.
The survey titled "In the Shadow of Covid-19 – Coping, Adjustments, Responses" found that the income of people declined, unemployment increased and income sources of some people completely dried up during the pandemic.
The survey also found that 1.64 crore people recently fell into poverty during the pandemic.
In the Small and Medium Enterprise sector, 63 percent of labourers do not expect to even get their wages and 21 percent are not sure they will get their salaries – while only 16 percent are hopeful about receiving half of their salaries.