We Are All Interconnected: Update from Bangladesh by Rev. Kevin Stout

The COVID-19 lockdown has already disproportionately hurt marginalized communities across the world due to loss of livelihood and lack of food, shelter, health, and other basic needs. And then you add in things like population density: Bangladesh, for example, has 2,890 people per square mile while the United States has only 92 people per square mile.

So, what do you do in a global pandemic when you are in Bangladesh? There are millions of people in close proximity. Entire families must live in single rooms and share beds, utensils, and food.

Like most of the world, Bangladesh is on a total shutdown. Everything is closed, no one can work, and there is no certainty as to what will happen next. In Bangladesh, most individuals and families live on a day-to-day basis. Without the ability to work and earn money, many people are unsure of how to simply survive. Where will their next meal come from? How will they buy things like soap to keep themselves safe and clean?

In rural Bangladesh, farmers are suffering severe losses due to the pandemic. The virus and the protective measures taken to stop the illness’ spread are affecting every part of the country’s food system. All the disruptions and restrictions ensure that the poor can’t buy what they need (high cost of non-perishable) and that farmers have nowhere to sell their goods (low prices for perishable).

One of my farmer friends grows vegetables and sells them in Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh. Demand for such vegetables, as people don’t have money, has fallen. He usually sells his vegetables for around 70 cents per pound but had to cut the cost to 23 cents a pound, way below his production cost. Even at that price, it is still hard to sell his product because transportation is shut down.

In addition, low-income female workers who live in the slums of Dhaka and rely on their husband’s income to make ends meet are hard hit. Most of their husbands are rickshaw pullers but, with nobody working or shopping, there is no need for transportation via rickshaws. That is why most slum dwellers are facing many difficulties to meet family expenses, especially for food.

One of the agencies I have worked with is Basha in Bangladesh. Basha is creating a society where girls and women are empowered, valued, accepted, and have confidence to contribute to their family, community, and nation. Through dignified work, Basha provides a sustainable livelihood for women at risk, many of whom worked in brothels, as well as survivors of sex trafficking. They provide training and empowerment through sale of handmade artisan products made by the women that are then sold around the world.

In Bangladesh, brothels (which are legal) are closed due to the lockdown from the pandemic. This means income for many of these women and children has also suddenly come to halt and there is suffering. Basha is actively choosing to be a part of the solution. Together, Basha has distributed food and personal hygiene products to more than 500 women and their children who are living in the brothels. In the coming weeks, Basha is organizing more initiatives to help those who are marginalized.

One Basha artisan was able to help distribute the food. She herself had spent twenty years in that brothel. What an amazing testimony of hope and opportunity she was able to share. She said (concerning the women in the brothels): “They think about their future and cry. They know they will get food for this month but what will happen next month? And they cry for happiness too, as they receive food.”

This is a challenging time for Bangladesh and Basha. With Bangladesh in lockdown and Basha centers closed, they are not sure they will be able to fulfill their current orders. But they are committed to making sure that every artisan receives their wages. Their heart especially goes out to the women stuck in brothels. Would you like to contribute to these relief efforts? Please visit https://friendsofbasha.org/donate/ to donate now.

Do you realize that there are women in Bangladesh who are concerned for you, wherever you are? Another message that came from a woman of Basha: “All the women are really feeling sad inside for the whole world. Each of them is praying for this hard situation. And I’ve noticed they have started loving each other more than before…”

If this pandemic shows us anything at all, it shows how interconnected we are. There is such an amazing sense of comradery as we globally experience loss and hardship due to COVID-19. If a virus can spread so far, wreak havoc so fast, what about love and care? Can we spread justice, resources, opportunity, safety…?

Everyone should have food. Everyone should have care. Everyone should have justice. Everyone should have safety. Everyone should have opportunity.

Pastor Kevin served in Bangladesh for twelve years with the Mennonite Central Committee, World Concern, and Compassion International. He is now pastor at St. John Lutheran Church, Boiling Springs, PA.

Photo credit: Sally John.