The government and the businesses must work together to determine the priorities and devise a phased approach
With the economy now reopening, strict protocol must be maintained to ensure safety at all times. The reopening guideline for businesses should consider each step, from people leaving home, going to work, to staying at work and returning home.
We cannot just ask people to follow the safety requirements by themselves, the plan must consider how many people would be present on the road or transport, or at a workplace at a given time so that the social distancing could be maintained, until we have a remedy against the virus.
A phased approach must be taken with the government and businesses working together to determine the priorities.
Like many parts of the world, Bangladesh's economy also came to a halt to prevent Covid-19 transmission since late March. The country has now decided to reopen its businesses by lifting the shutdown on May 31st.
The government declaration came at the point when the nation saw a surge in the number of infected cases crossing 40,000 and positive cases accounted for any single day broke the past records, reaching more than 2000 as per official data.
Although the official counts for deaths is hovering just above 500, the unofficial number is assumed to be in the range of 1000s.
However, the government is correct to indicate that the nation has no alternative but to restart the economy.
Consequently, a directive has been issued by the government on reopening in limited capacities; public transportation will start operating but in a limited capacity.
People have been advised to strictly follow health safety protocols such as hand washing, wearing masks, hand gloves and maintaining social distancing. It has also been suggested that people with illness, the elderly or pregnant will be exempted from going to work.
On a broader perspective, the directives issued on the reopening make sense but we wouldn't have to look far behind to see the gap between the expectations and reality.
Evidently, wide gaps between the intention of the nation's top decision makers and the implementation level have repeatedly been observed in recent days.
Influx of workers were seen coming from their towns when RMG factories were set to open only with the local workers and a third of the capacities.
Directives were issued such that no emergency patients were refused treatment in any situation. However, patients have continued to be denied admission from the suspicion of Covid-19 infections.
Many private vehicles took the form of crowded public transports during the Eid holidays despite the shutdown measures in place.
At the present context, some unanswered questions still remain before the full-fledged reopening of businesses.
Should we have lifted the shutdown on a large scale just by advising to follow the protocols of health safety? Will people follow these guidelines? Will there be enough protective gears or space to allow social distancing at work, on transportation or the streets?
More importantly, conflicts between personal and collective interests may arise while relying on personal responsibility to the protocols.
For instance, shop owners who do not have adequate space for social distancing may not want to keep their shops closed when other similar shops with larger space are allowed to remain open. Besides, we have repeatedly seen over time how difficult it is to control the crowds just outside the stores, offices, manufacturing facilities or on the roads.
Experts are recommending that the best option for reopening an economy would have been through a gradual release by sector with the objective of reducing the size of gatherings and avoiding overcrowding of hospitals and especially intensive care units.
The concept of gradual reopening should have been focused on resuming activities that offer maximum economic benefit with a minimum impact from the virus.
There must also be a defined constraint on the type of activities that required to be maintained in order to keep the transmission of the virus under control. That means the reopening would proceed from the safest activities to the most vulnerable, as we may initially want to limit out-of-home activities to those with the least risk of infection.
Unfortunately, in absence of strong government intervention, a fast and large-scale lifting of the shutdown would likely lead to other shutdowns in the near future.
This is because the actual path of reopening would possibly become very messy, resulting in mass infection. Further shutdowns could also leave us with lasting and profound damage on the economy with more long-term unemployment as well as large numbers of bankruptcies.
As the reopening begins, many adjustments need to be made to our workplaces, manufacturing facilities, outdoor work arrangements or our social life to help us reduce the risk of virus spread. To lift the shutdown, prioritization of sector-wise reopening could be decided upon based on several considerations:
Moving online: Encouraging and mandating the businesses to offer services online, and for the citizens to use as much of those amenities as possible. Many banking and non-banking financial transactions are already being done online today.
The spectrum of online solutions need to be extended to all possible avenues, including government and non-government services, education, art or entertainments. The reopening prioritization must come with the maximized utilization of the benefits the so-called digital Bangladesh has to offer.
To support the livelihood: Consideration should be given to the economic condition of people working in a sector. For example, small retailers, transport or construction or RMG workers are facing severe hardships as the business model makes it harder for them to receive government support. Some of these sectors are also crucial to drive the economic engine of the nation.
Value add per capita: Sectors requiring less human resource and creating more value per capita, such as ICT services, pharmaceutical or electronics industries should be prioritized.
Focusing on these sectors will not only throttle the economic growth but may help continue attracting foreign direct investment (FDI).
While many multinational corporations are exploring options to reconfigure their supply chain in the midst of ongoing US-China spat, losing sight on FDI wouldn't be of the best interest for our short-term or long-term economic goal.
Lacking remote option: Beside construction or transportation, businesses such as healthcare, electricity supply, hotels or food services could be the targets of a first wave of lockdown release because they are less suitable for virtual work.
Some organizations in these sectors have already been considered as essential services and have continued operating during the shutdown.
However, all functions of each sector should not necessarily have the same priority in reopening or need physical presence for performance.
The government and the businesses should therefore work together to determine which jobs could remain virtual or commence at a later stage. For instance, some support activities, coordination, and reporting functions, certain maintenance and service jobs, management and non-operational departments within the businesses may be performed remotely and are not required to be considered as a priority during the reopening.
The reopening strategy should also consider an adaptive approach. It would allow continuous adjustments regarding sector specific permitted activities, length of each phase and plan for the subsequent phases based on the lesson learned from each phase.
It would be the government's duty to provide a clear guideline, whereas the businesses' to come up with a detailed execution plan on how to conduct their operations. Then, the Government should monitor the compliance and work with the businesses to adopt adjustments to the plans as necessary.
The businesses should only be allowed to reopen and continue to operate once they meet safety requirements for the workplace that spell out everything from appropriate measures on hygiene, social distancing protocols for employees to response plans for handling workers who contract Covid-19 upon returning to work.
Without a detailed plan to protect the citizens from the pandemic, reopening would be an arbitrary approach that may only lead the nation to more chaos and hence push more toward a catastrophe.
Standard operating procedures specific to the present situation should be detailed and executed for each business. Instead of giving a blanket go-ahead for reopening of all businesses, the shutdown must be lifted through a well-thought out, clearly explained and phased approach.
Although the re-opening declaration called for limited scale activities, the limiting parameters weren't properly spelled out, which may only add to the confusions. Perhaps, we should avoid our usual disconnects and confusions at least at the time when we are facing a formidable enemy.
We have yet to learn how to encounter it, except we know, we need to stay away.
Sabbir Ahmad, is a PhD - Researcher, mentor and a leader in project delivery and engineering