April 10, 2020
‘The Lockdown Is Killing Them’
“I’ve never seen so many people begging outside the gate,” my friend Rafi told me last week from Dhaka, the capital of the southern Asian country of Bangladesh. “The lockdown is killing them. Literally.”
For many Americans, “sheltering in place” to avoid COVID-19 involves stocking up at Costco, padding around in PJs, and forgetting the day of the week. To the 49% of the U.S population that lives from paycheck to paycheck – many of whom aren’t getting one at all now – it’s a Darth Vader-style financial death grip.
Not many of the 165 million people who live in Bangladesh – that’s eight times the population of Florida, packed into an area as big as Florida – are gorging on Netflix’s Tiger King or making TikTok videos while they’re on lockdown.
You don’t have much savings if you’re a fruit vendor or trishaw driver who makes $4-$6 a day – the national average daily wage in Bangladesh. And when you’re on lockdown, you’re not making a single taka (the currency of Bangladesh). The 20 million Bangladeshis who make garments for Gap or H&M – the country is the world’s second-largest producer of garment manufacturing, after China – aren’t either.
In desperately poor countries, the line between just surviving in abject poverty and starving to death is thin. And right now, a lot of people in Bangladesh are getting very, very hungry.
Rafi, who grew up in Bangladesh but has lived a lot of his life in the U.S., told me that yesterday that there were fewer people at the gate of the high-end apartment complex where he lives. Police charged with enforcing the lockdown sent a lot of them away.
But just because hungry people aren’t on the streets, doesn’t mean they’re safe from COVID-19…
Dhaka – “the world’s most broken city,” according to the New York Times – is also the world’s most densely populated urban center. It has 10 times more people per square kilometer than Tokyo.
When I visited Dhaka in late 2017, the sheer volume of people during a normal workday downtown felt like a cross between the crowds outside a big stadium after the end of a concert, and a full-blown riot. That the city’s paralytic traffic moves at an average of four miles per hour pushes even more people to the sidewalk.
Worse, just over half of Dhaka’s 9 million residents – more than three times the population of Chicago – live in slums, according to the World Bank. I’ve never been to a Dhaka slum, but I would assume that social distancing and hand sanitizer are crazy luxuries. Maybe there’s a more ideal circumstance for a highly contagious virus to spread than poverty, high population density, and dirty slums, but I doubt it.
When I was in Bangladesh, I took a three-hour train ride into the countryside with Rafi to visit the guesthouse his mother owns. Along the way, we saw a lot of people who worked tiny plots of land (see the photo below) – who today have no way to get their produce to market.
“Out in the villages, the police are burying the dead,” Rafi told me. Bangladesh officially has just 330 cases of COVID-19 (up by 66% over the past day). But there’s no question that’s massively underreported, as there have been only 5,000 tests done. For reference, the state of Alaska (0.45% the population of Bangladesh) has tested more people.
What’s more, “A lot of doctors are refusing to even see patients. They’re waiting for the government to pay them more,” Rafi said.
“Isn’t seeing patients their job?” I asked.
Rafi sighed. Of course it’s not that simple…
Bangladesh has less than 1,200 ICU beds… that’s 78 times less than the U.S. (which has twice Bangladesh’s population). The rich countries of the world are vying for and bidding up the price of facemasks, surgical gloves, and ventilators. Bangladesh’s needs don’t even register in that competition.
Bangladesh’s economy is about as big as that of South Carolina. And the $8 billion coronavirus stimulus package that the government is discussing won’t help much… It certainly won’t convince many more doctors to do their job.
In fact, it would be a victory if even a fraction of the bailout package – which is a single aerosol droplet compared to the Hulk-sized sneeze that’s the multitrillion-dollar American stimulus package – made it to the people it’s supposed to help. Bangladesh is ranked No. 146 (out of 180 countries) in corruption watchdog Transparency International’s Corruption Perceptions Index.
Bangladesh isn’t alone in facing a dire disease with almost no resources. In fact, throughout the world’s developing markets – from Argentina to India to Indonesia – it’s a similar story. The Financial Times recently wrote about the “threat of catastrophe” in the developing world…
“Across Africa, Latin America and much of Asia, governments with far less firepower than their western counterparts are figuring out how to keep the pandemic at bay and their economies afloat.
It is not clear they can do both. With Europe and the US, the virus arrived first, forcing a public health response, and then — as the enormity of the crisis struck home — a massive fiscal and monetary injection. In much of the developing world, the sequence has happened in reverse, with the economic devastation of coronavirus arriving before the epidemic itself.”
The economies of a lot of emerging markets are facing similar economic challenges to the U.S. – millions of people losing their jobs, no one buying anything, and the economy at a standstill. But in poor countries, these problems are on steroids.
Economic problems make the medical ones all the more difficult to address. The currencies of many of emerging markets are collapsing, as investors sell “high risk” assets. This makes it all the more difficult for countries, and companies, to borrow (or roll over) debt. And the collapse in the oil price as well as other commodities means that a lot of big employers have to lay off people – and are contributing a lot less in taxes to the national budget.
Of course, the governments of (for example) South Africa, Brazil, Indonesia, or anywhere else can print more currency, Federal Reserve-style. But since the world isn’t flocking to buy their debt like it is for the U.S. dollar as a reserve currency, these nations would fuel massive inflation. Even solid double-digit inflation could turn out to be at least as damaging to their economies as what’s happening now with the coronavirus pandemic.
I checked in with my friend Charles, who lives in Indonesia and has been investing in frontier and emerging markets for decades. He thinks that the medicine of the economic damage of the lockdowns is worse than the disease itself.
“The harsh reality is people will die from this… rather than just taking the terrible blow from coronavirus, what these governments are now doing is condemning a far larger proportion of the population to other forms of suffering. It’s absolutely shocking,” he told me.
“Get people out to work,” Charles says, “rather than let the economy die.”
What’s the end game for the world’s emerging markets? Even the usually unexcitable Financial Times is talking about a revolution…
“The combination of such pressures [plummeting income and economic devastation] with health systems that are unprepared to deal with a pandemic at the best of times creates a real risk of social implosion.”
Poor people are forced to stay inside to starve. If they go outside, they die even faster. The lucky few make it to hospitals that are out of the most basic supplies. And their helpless, penniless governments go bust.
I think a number of governments in developing countries will be booted out, whether via popular uprisings if not the ballot box. It’s going to get very ugly.
In the U.S., people are going hungry too.
“Demand for food assistance is rising at an extraordinary rate, just as the nation’s food banks are being struck by shortages of both donated food and volunteer workers,” the New York Times reported earlier this week. (You might imagine the reaction of a peckish Dhaka slum dweller: Food banks? They have banks of food?)
Meanwhile, my baby brother, the ER doc in New Mexico, is back at work. A few weeks ago he treated a patient who showed symptoms of COVID-19 (and subsequently tested positive), and so he quarantined himself. But his vacation time, which he was using to self-isolate, ran out, and now he’s back on duty.
The challenge is that he doesn’t want to risk contracting COVID-19 at work and then bring it home to his wife and kids (and our parents, who help take care of the kids). So he’s moving out to stay in a local hotel that’s offering cut-rate rooms to medical professionals.
“I think I’m still in denial that I have to do this,” he told me. “Not seeing the kids, our parents, or [his wife] for seven weeks or more, is bad enough. And only being a few miles away is crazy and so sad.” Some of his colleagues sometimes have dinner with their families – with a window between them. “I don’t think I could do that,” my brother said. “It would just be too hard.”
For the 15 years that he’s been working in the emergency room, a normal day at the office might involve anything from gunshot wounds (welcome to Public Hospital, USA) to projectile vomit to strokes to premature babies. Now is the first time – just when it’s needed the most – that he has to ration the most basic protective equipment.
Flimsy yellow surgical masks that he and his ER colleagues would usually use once then throw out have to last “as long as possible,” he told me. But presumably you get something more high-powered when you’re seeing a potential coronavirus patient? I asked. (I was thinking of the N95 masks that keep out smaller particles.)
“Well, we get those, yes, if we suspect COVID-19,” he said to me. But then he has to put the used mask in a brown lunch bag, and it’s sent somewhere to get an ultraviolet “treatment.” Then the next day he gets the same mask back, (presumably) cleaned. “It comes back to you in this little bag that, if you didn’t know any better, looks like something the Easter bunny would bring,” he told me. The Easter bunny, only it’s not chocolate and it’s very grim.
“But at least now you can test potential coronavirus carriers, right? So that you know what you’re dealing with if a patient with symptoms walks through the door,” I said.
“Well, no,” he replies. “We mostly have to tell people with coronavirus symptoms to go home and isolate themselves, and to come back if they get worse.” There aren’t enough COVID-19 testing kits – and the results can take days to come back. The lab guys still aren’t working weekends, despite the pandemic.
My brother will be turning 38 years old in a few weeks. “I’ll take the day off since it’s my birthday, even though I’ll be by myself,” he told me. He said that he’ll “celebrate” by doing the family grocery shopping (no one else is leaving the house) and then having a glass (bottle?) of wine. “What else is there to do on your birthday by yourself and you can’t go anywhere but the store?”
Now here are some of the stories we’re reading…
Singapore coronavirus surge raises fears of post-lockdown breakouts
One of the worst-hit countries when the virus first spread from China in January, Singapore’s strict surveillance and quarantine regime helped slow the outbreak, but recent rises in locally transmitted cases have raised fresh concerns. Singapore reported 142 new infections on Wednesday.
Coronavirus Has Shut Stores, and Retailers Are Running Out of Time
First, the store doors shut. Now, the walls are closing in. Retailers have furloughed hundreds of thousands of workers, cut executive pay and stopped paying rent, all to conserve cash. For the most indebted retailers, particularly those already struggling before the crisis began, those measures may not be enough.
U.S. weekly jobless claims total 6.6 million vs. 5 million expected
Jobless rolls continued to swell due to the coronavirus shutdown, with 6.6 million Americans filing first-time unemployment claims in the week ended April 4, the Labor Department reported Thursday. That brings the total over the past three weeks to more than 16 million.
What to Do With Your Coronavirus Stimulus Check
The goal of these checks is for folks to get back out and start spending again… but that doesn’t mean you need to spend yours right away. I want to give some advice about what to do with these checks. And it really depends on your situation…
And let us know what you’re reading at [email protected].
Chaos Chronicles Editor, American Consequences
With P.J. O’Rourke and the Editorial Staff
April 10, 2020