Responding to COVID-19 in the Developing World

Idled boats on the shore of Buriganga River in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on March 31. Photo: Ahmed Salahuddin/NurPhoto via Getty Images.
April 7, 2020

The mass social distancing strategy being used to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in the United States and Europe doesn’t easily translate to a developing country like Bangladesh, which lacks the capacity to impose restrictions or provide a social safety net for the unemployed. We talked with Yale SOM development economist Mushfiq Mobarak about how he is repurposing his research infrastructure in Bangladesh to gather information and test approaches to spreading public health messages

Is the social-distancing strategy used in the United States an effective response to COVID-19 in a developing country like Bangladesh?

There are several reasons why the types of strategies that we’re seeing in the U.S. or China or South Korea or Singapore are unlikely to be the exact right response for rural areas of Bangladesh.

One key difference is that we don’t have much testing going on, especially in rural areas. The testing that is available is limited to a few urban centers, so it’s difficult for us to get information on exactly where the disease is emerging and spreading in rural areas. Absent that information, it becomes very difficult for us to figure out how we allocate and direct resources. What are the hotspots? We need to make some indirect inferences on that, and that poses some data and statistical challenges. 

Second, imposing social distancing and enforcing the policy is very difficult when institutional capacity is limited around the country. Something that China can impose is not possible for us to impose on a large scale in Bangladesh. 

What makes it even more complicated is the fact that this isn’t a country where you can provide social-distancing guidelines and then pair them with a big stimulus package. You can’t say, “This social distancing is going to have economic costs, and so we’re going to try to address that by providing support to individuals and small businesses.” If you cannot do that, it’s also going to be very difficult for you to ensure that people will abide by those guidelines. 

If you’re a day-wage laborer in a rural area of a developing country, and you don’t have much of a buffer of savings, you may be reliant on your wage earnings in a given day or a given week in order to feed your family. Now, in a country where there’s social insurance and you can target social protection to people who are in that situation, maybe you can tide them over for this period of need. But in a country where it’s not easy for us to identify people who need that social protection and provide aid to them directly, it’s going to be very difficult for us to ensure that they abide by those guidelines. If their family is going hungry that week, they’re not going to follow all of your guidelines.

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