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Bangladesh: The Nexus between Marginalization and COVID-19

The COVID-19 crisis is disproportionately affecting marginalized communities around the world, including in Bangladesh. Minority groups such as Biharis and transgendered people live on the margins of society with restricted access to essential services, and are ill-prepared for a public health emergency. Such inequalities increase the risk of the health emergency spiraling out of control.

Programs that bridge the gap between marginalized communities and government are an important part of the pandemic response – making it possible for these groups to access public services and receive critical information. The International Republican Institute (IRI) is proud to work with these communities to equip them with the skills to advocate for themselves and ensure that their voices are heard.

As COVID-19 spreads across Bangladesh, historically marginalized communities are proving to be the most vulnerable to both the virus and the economic costs of an ongoing lockdown. Two such groups are the Urdu-speaking Biharis and transgendered people (often called hijra). These communities are particularly vulnerable to the virus because of their reliance on informal employment, and because they often live in poor, crowded living conditions that make social distancing, quarantining and access to sanitation extremely difficult.

Biharis are a linguistic minority in Bangladesh with a population of around 300,000. Many Biharis opposed Bangladesh’s liberation war in 1971 and supported the Pakistani army, and because of this have faced social and institutional discrimination. Many Biharis serve as street vendors, rickshaw pullers or construction workers in the country’s informal economy, and most live in slums.

The exact number of hijras in Bangladesh is unknown, with estimates ranging between 10,000 and 100,000. They often live together in impoverished communities and rely on begging for income. Hijras routinely face bigotry and harassment, experience a higher rate of violent crime and are often denied medical care.

In recent years, the government has made important inroads in recognizing the rights of these two minority groups: In 2008, Biharis received citizenship rights, and in 2013 Hijras were recognized as an official “third gender.”

Today, the COVID-19 pandemic is threatening this gradual progress and presenting new obstacles for these already struggling populations. Many in these communities simply do not have the resources to undertake the proper preventive measures and fear that their living conditions – which are difficult even under normal circumstances – may now become deadly. “We feel helpless to lead our life,” said a Bihari woman, 27, from Khulna. “We have safe water … but nobody is providing us with hand sanitizer, gloves or masks to protect us from the virus.”

A hijra, 20, in Sylhet said, “Four people are living in one single room. If one gets infected, there is no space for quarantine. That’s the scenario in the whole [hijra] community. We have heard enough about the do’s and don’ts for coronavirus, but we have no choice but to use unhygienic and unsafe toilets.”

As Bangladesh struggles to manage the pandemic, it faces a shortfall in testing kits, hospital beds and medical staff, with doctors reportedly refusing infected patients because they lack proper protective equipment. Bangladesh’s population density, weak health care system, inefficient local governance, limited civic education and low testing rates make stemming community transmission of the virus a huge concern in this country of more than 164 million people — the eighth-most populous country in the world.

In this context, many members of marginalized communities fear that they stand little chance of getting proper care because of persistent discrimination. “In the regular situation, I never received proper treatment,” said a hijra, 24, in Dhaka. “In this situation [COVID-19 pandemic], we cannot even imagine that a doctor would pay us a look.”

With the country on lockdown, traditional income-generating activities for marginalized groups have evaporated. As a Bihari man in Chattogram explained, “My shop has been closed since the official announcement of a public shutdown because of coronavirus. Now, I am in lockdown with my family. I have no savings. I have no source of relief for my five family members.”

The Bangladeshi government has begun to distribute basic food supplies in poor areas, and announced a $590 million stimulus directed at the ready-made garment industry, which is a large and vital sector of Bangladesh’s economy. Yet more short-term assistance is needed for ordinary citizens, particularly for vulnerable groups.

A strong civil society is crucial to bridging the divide between marginalized communities and government in times of crisis. In recognition of this, IRI is continuing to support Bangladesh’s marginalized communities in their time of need – implementing an advocacy program to support Biharis, sexual minorities and other marginalized communities to raise their voice for greater respect and rights.

Although in the early stages of IRI’s program, our partners are now better able to articulate their needs to the government during this pandemic and, over time, will be able to pressure policymakers for substantive improvements in their daily lives that could prevent suffering during a future crisis.