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Bangladesh’s Percentage of Covid-Vaccinated Garment Workers Barely Above Zero

Just a fraction of Bangladesh’s garment workers have been able to access information about receiving the Covid-19 vaccine, and even fewer have managed to get the coveted shot in their arms, according to a new study.

The survey of 1,280 garment workers, conducted by the South Asian Network on Economic Modeling (SANEM) and Microfinance Opportunities (MFO) at the end of April, found that a scant 2 percent of those employed in the industrial areas of Chittagong, Dhaka City, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Savar have been vaccinated. Of those who wished to be immunized, nearly 80 percent had no idea how to do so. More than one-third (34 percent) didn’t even know if they qualified for the jab.

Most workers, however, want the vaccine. Overall, 69 percent of those polled said they were willing to be immunized. Of the 31 percent who did not want the shot, 48 percent were afraid of side effects, falling sick or dying, and 23 percent said they failed to see its benefits. Another 17 percent said they would rely on their religious faith to protect them, 3 percent said they were pregnant or had a pre-existing condition and 2 percent said their husbands didn’t approve.

“The data clearly indicate[s] that workers do not have access to adequate information related to Covid-19 immunization,” the report said. “This is a concern because [the] inability to ensure access to Covid-19 vaccines will put millions of garment workers, who are employed in one of our most crucial industries, at risk.”

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Garment workers are a high-risk population because they frequently toil under cramped conditions where infection can quickly gain purchase, labor advocates say. Due to their meager incomes, they tend to suffer from malnutrition and have limited access to healthcare. Their workforces also mostly comprise women, migrants and younger people who are underprioritized in vaccine drives.

More than three-quarters of the survey’s respondents were women, a number SANEM and MFO describe as representative of the industry as a whole. The poll, which took place over the phone, is part of a larger research project known as the “Garment Worker Diaries.”

Months after it lobbied for vaccines for factory owners, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association, a leading trade group, has been urging the government to prioritize garment workers as “frontline fighters.” But the plea comes as the country’s limited vaccine supplies are running out—and cases are going up. Neighboring India, a major AstraZeneca vaccine producer, has all but halted exports as it wages its own war against Covid-19, roiling the vaccination plans of many other countries. This includes Bangladesh, which recorded more than 40 deaths over the past 24 hours—its highest since May 10.

Over the weekend, Bangladesh’s regulatory authority approved China’s CoronaVac—the fifth it has greenlighted—for emergency use. (The others are Pfizer-BioNTech, China’s Sinopharm, Russia’s Sputnik V and India’s Covishield.) China has so far donated 500,000 doses of Sinopharm, with a promise to deliver another 600,000 by June 13. The United States also announced last week its plan to share vaccines directly with Bangladesh as part of a broader initiative to supply 80 million doses globally by the end of the month.

The South Asian nation is on lockdown until at least June 16, but apparel production is considered essential work that can continue unhampered despite restrictions on public movement and gathering.

Public transportation such as trains, buses and ferries, once no-gos, are now allowed to operate at half capacity, which could offer some measure of relief for workers who don’t have factory-provided alternatives or live within walking distance of their factories.

In the same SANEM and MFO survey, 76 percent of respondents said they commuted to work on foot. Just 4 percent of garment workers had factory-provided transportation. Another 10 percent used rickshaws, 6 percent used autorickshaws, 2 percent used buses and 2 percent used ferries. Most workers (92 percent) reported no change to their mode of transport from before the lockdown, indicating that the majority walked to work anyway.