Alleviating hunger in Bangladesh during Covid-19 restrictions

Iftar meals ready to serve

Iftar meals which will be served to to orphaned children, rickshaw-pullers, street vendors, and people from other marginalised sections of society who have become unemployed during lockdown. Image by Liza Asma Akhter, Mehmankhana. Used with permission.

Bangladesh is experiencing its second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, with rising infection rates and deaths since April 2021, however, as of June 2021, the situation is starting to gradually improve. The pandemic has resulted in a significant rise in unemployment and particularly affected day labourers and other low-income groups from the informal sector who have not had any work due to prolonged Covid-19 restrictions and business closures.

Due to an inadequate government social safety net, there is a food crisis among lower-middle-class and low-income families and many cannot afford three meals a day. In response to this, several government and civil sector efforts, mostly funded by the general public, corporate social responsibility initiatives and charities, are ensuring that the hungry are fed.

After confirming the first COVID-19 cases in March 2020, Bangladesh imposed a general holiday (lockdown) on March 26, 2020, closing all businesses and institutions except the service sector and emergency services. Thousands of people lost their jobs and were unable to pay their rent in urban centres, which forced many of them to return to their family villages though no job opportunities existed. The lockdown was relaxed in June 2020 and the economy started to recover. However, this had an impact on the lives and livelihoods of low-income people.

Bangladesh's second wave of coronavirus started in March 2021, and the countrywide lockdown restrictions started on April 5. Although this wave has not been as catastrophic as neighbouring India's, low-income people and day labourers took another economic hit due to the lockdown, although it has been relaxed in recent weeks.

To help those facing increased hunger due to the pandemic, there have been many governmental and non-governmental initiatives to deliver food to those in need.

“333” – Citizen Services & Information helpline

The a2i program of the Information and Communication Technology Division of the Bangladesh Government has had a citizen service & information call centre ‘333’ since 2018. Since April 2020, the services have been extended for COVID-19 information, telemedicine, and emergency food assistance for people in need. Many lower-middle-class families who had previously been able to support themselves, lost their resources during the pandemic and found it difficult to seek assistance from others.

How the helpline works has been highlighted in a status on its Facebook page:

খাদ্য সহায়তা পাওয়ার জন্য ৩৩৩ তে ফোন করুন। ৩৩৩ তে ফোন দেওয়ার পর ৩ চাপুন । প্রকৃত সেবাপ্রার্থীরা যেন তাদের সেবাটি সঠিকভাবে পেতে পারেন, সেজন্য আইভিআর সিস্টেমের মাধ্যমে প্রাথমিকভাবে একটি স্ক্রিনিং প্রক্রিয়া পরে কলটি এজেন্টের কাছে পাঠানো হয়। তারপর আপনার সমস্যার কথা বলুন আমাদের এজেন্টের কাছে । আমাদের এজেন্ট সংশ্লিষ্ট উপজেলা নির্বাহী কর্মকর্তা কাছে আপনার তথ্যটি পাঠিয়ে দিবেন। সরেজমিনে যাচাই-বাছাই করে প্রকৃত অভাবী মানুষের বাড়িতে খাদ্য সহায়তা পৌঁছে দেওয়া হবে।

Call 333 (and press 3) for emergency food assistance. To ensure that the actual service seekers can get the service, the call is sent to an agent after an initial screening process through the IVR system. Then speak to your agent about your problem. Our agent will send your information to the concerned Upazila Nirbahi Officer, an executive of the local administration. Dry food aid will be delivered to the homes of needy people after a spot check and confirmation.

The Emergency Response Center of the Department of Disaster Management collects the required food aid information from the field administration and allocates the food to those in need. In April 2020 alone, the helpline responded to over 46,600 families’ calls for food assistance. Emergency food assistance service for the hungry is still available during the latest round of lockdown despite some complaints.

For example, when a man from Narayanganj called ‘333’ for emergency food assistance in May 2021, authorities found out that the person owns a house and a business and he was fined to provide 100 low-income people with food as a punishment. However, later it was found out that despite owning a house, the person wasn't able to work due to partial disability and lost his business. So he really needed the assistance.

Bidyanondo Foundation's relief effort. Image via Bidyanondo. Used with permission.

Bidyanondo Foundation's relief effort. Image via Bidyanondo. Used with permission.

Bidyanondo Foundation's One Taka Meal

The Bidyanondo Foundation led by IT professional turned activist Kishor Kumar Das started their work in 2013 to provide education to thousands of underprivileged street kids of Bangladesh. It started the One Taka Meal program in 2016 to feed and assist the street kids and other marginalised communities. The price of the food is significantly discounted to one Bangladesh Taka (1.18 US cents), a symbolic amount meant to reduce any stigmas about needing food assistance.

During the COVID-19 lockdown period in 2020 and 2021, the Bidyananda Foundation started providing food and other assistance on a large scale not only in the capital Dhaka but all over Bangladesh.

A Volunteer carrying containers full of food aids to bring smile to the hungry people. Image via Bidyanondo. Used with permission.

A Volunteer carrying containers full of food aids to bring a smile to the hungry people. Image via Bidyanondo. Used with permission.

This post by Bidyanondo on Facebook shows the tireless efforts of its volunteers to supply food aid to the hungry.

তীব্র গরমও যেন থামাতে পারেনা তাঁদের। এভাবে সুপার ম্যানের মতো প্রতিটি স্বেচ্ছাসেবক এগিয়ে যায় হাত ভর্তি খাবার নিয়ে, আর নিশ্চিত করে শত শত পরিবারের মুখের হাসি।

Even the heat and humidity could not stop them. Like a Super Man, every volunteer marches ahead with a handful of food containers, ensuring smiles on the faces of hundreds of needy families.

Government forces like the Police and the Border Guards assisted the Bidyananda Foundation in delivering food aid to remote areas. According to a report shared on Bidyanondo's Facebook page on May 1, 2020, the relief provided by Bidyanondo Foundation was distributed among 1,000 unemployed families in the border areas of Kurigram and Lalmonirhat districts.

Mehmankhana, and Iftar meals for the hungry

This year, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan started during the lockdown period in April. Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset and typically break their fast with an Iftar meal. A large number of day labourers in the capital Dhaka, such as rickshaw pullers, were stuck at home because of the movement restrictions. It became difficult for them to get two meals during the day including a nutritious Iftar meal. A charity organisation called Mehmankhana lead by Theatre worker Liza Asma Akhter and her friends has been providing meals since April 2020 for orphaned children, rickshaw-pullers, street vendors, and people from other marginalised sections of society. They provided Iftar meals to over 1,500 people per day during Ramadan this year.

Journalist Ayesha Akhtar Keya shared on Facebook:

এই রমজানে প্রতিদিন সন্ধ্যায় লিজা আপুর বাসা থেকে পাশের রাস্তাগুলোতে দু সারিতে সারিবদ্ধভাবে দাঁড়িয়ে থাকা রিকশার এক মনোরম দৃশ্য আপনার দৃষ্টি কাড়বে অনায়াসেই। [..] স্বেচ্ছাসেবকগন ব্যস্ত, খাবারের প্লেটগুলো ভ্যানে উঠিয়ে যতদ্রুত সম্ভব মেহমানদের হাতে পৌঁছে দিতে। অসাধারন এ দৃশ্য যে কাউকে আন্দোলিত করতে পারে অমোঘ মানবপ্রেমে।

Every evening this Ramadan, you will see the wonderful view of rickshaws lined up in two rows on the nearby lanes starting from Liza's house. [..] Volunteers are seen taking food containers from a van and handing them over to the guests as soon as possible. This extraordinary scene can stir love for human beings in anyone.

Bangladeshi Food reviewer posts a review of the initiative on YouTube:

The initiative is not funded by big corporate donors but ordinary citizens, said Syed Saiful Alam Shovan, social worker and volunteer. But there is only that much they can do because of their organization's limited size:

সকাল বেলা ফুটপাতের চেয়ারর উপর কেউ চাল, ডাল, চিনি, চিড়া, খেজুর রেখে যান। সামাজিক যোগাযোগ মাধ্যম, ব্যক্তিগত যোগাযোগ, আত্মীয়, বন্ধুবান্ধব সবাই মিলে দিন শেষ এ সংগ্রহের উপর ভিত্তি করেই, আমরা বিনয়ের সাথে অনেকের বড় বড় অনুদান ফিরিয়ে দেই।

People leave different ingredients like rice, pulses, sugar, dates on the sidewalk chair in the morning. We collect funds via social media, personal contacts, relatives, friends and at the end of the day, we politely return big donations (thinking of our capacity).

Shovon wishes Mehmankhana could expand to other locations around the city.

Nafisa Anjum Khan and one Bangladesh

Nafisa Anjum Khan is a brand specialist working for a multinational company in Bangladesh. She joined a campaign managed by a local NGO called Cholo Sobai whose mission is to feed the hungry. Nafisa hops on a CNG-driven three-wheeler to deliver food aid to the doorsteps of the people in need who contact her on the phone. She has received support from celebrities like Cricket Star Tamim Iqbal who drew attention to her efforts.

Nafisa Khan distributing food during the Covid-19 pandemic. Image via her Facebook page. Used with permission.

Nafisa Khan distributing food using Autorickshaw during the Covid-19 pandemic. Image via her Facebook page. Used with permission.

She went to many cities within Bangladesh like Narayanganj, Netrokona and Jamalpur, to reach out to more people in need and she shares regular updates in her Facebook page. She also collects food aid through her Facebook page, e.g. in this post on Facebook on April 11, 2021:

ইতিমধ্যেই ঢাকার ৬টি এলাকা থেকে ২১১টি পরিবারের ফোন কল,মেসেজ পেয়েছি যাদের খাদ্য সহযোগিতা প্রয়োজন।যার ঘরে যা আছে-চাল,ডাল,আলু,পেয়াজ আমাকে দিতে পারেন আমি সঠিক পরিবারকে পৌঁছে দিব।আপনাদের সকলের সহযোগিতা একান্ত কাম্য।

I have recently received phone calls and messages for food aid from 211 families spanning six areas. You can share dry food from your home such as rice, Dal, Potato, onion etc. and send them to me. I will deliver them to the right families (who are in need). I am anticipating your sincere cooperation.

Bangladesh is a populous country and government efforts alone may not be adequate in stemming rising hunger rates, but efforts such as these are providing much-needed food to the hungry and keeping up the hope for humanity.

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