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German Retailer Funds Covid-19 Vaccines for Garment Workers in Bangladesh

One German discount retailer is financing the purchase of Covid-19 vaccines for garment workers in Bangladesh, where the number of new daily infections continues to hover around 3,000.

Bönen-based KiK’s donation is being dispatched through the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), which will forward the sum to the branch of the health ministry responsible for getting shots in arms, the trade group revealed Wednesday.

KiK, which signed the freshly minted International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry last week, said its largesse is part of the company’s longstanding commitment to manufacturing in Bangladesh. The firm has previously supplied funding to schools and medical programs. In 2015, KiK paid $1 million into a compensation fund for the victims of the disastrous collapse at Rana Plaza, which produced some of its goods. As of 2019, the retailer was working with 125 facilities in Bangladesh.

“As a result of our many years of close cooperation, we became very aware of the impact of the corona pandemic on the country and the garment industry in particular,” CEO Patrick Zahn said in a statement. “People in this industry work indoors, where they are at increased risk of infection. For me, there is no doubt that vaccination is the best protection against the coronavirus. With our donation, we want to make a contribution to ensure that people in the garment industry in Bangladesh are protected in the best possible way.”

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Though the size of KiK’s contribution was not disclosed, BGMEA President Faruque Hassan described it as “generous” and enough to inoculate thousands of workers.

“The garment industry serves as the most important pillar of Bangladesh economy,” Hassan said. “This sector has suffered tremendously from the effects of the Covid pandemic and continues to do so to this day. To protect the entire economy of the country, it is crucial that workers and employees in this industry can be offered a vaccine. Thanks to the generous donation of the German company KiK, we are able to procure and vaccinate thousands of RMG workers in Bangladesh.”

Bangladesh’s garment sector, the world’s third-largest exporter of clothing after China and Vietnam, employs more than 4.1 million workers. Because of a global vaccine shortage, not to mention the size of the workforce, less than 2 percent of them have received doses. Comparatively, 90 percent of neighboring Sri Lanka’s 350,000 garment workers have received their first dose of the vaccine, and up to 50 percent have received their second, according to the Joint Apparel Association Forum, the nation’s leading industry body.

Since garment factories are usually exempted from nationwide lockdowns—a matter of necessity to prevent an economic shutdown, decision makers say—the BGMEA has lobbied the government for priority access amid the continuing delta surge. Progress has been slow-going, however, with demand far outstripping supply in a country of 165 million with an overextended healthcare system.

The German textile discounter operates more than 3,500 stores in 11 European countries.
The German textile discounter operates more than 3,500 stores in 11 European countries. Guido Kirchner/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

To date, Bangladesh has logged more than 1.5 million cases of Covid-19 and nearly 27,000 deaths. More than half have occurred since the start of April.

The American Apparel and Footwear Association, a trade group that counts J.Crew and Patagonia among its members, has appealed to President Joe Biden to donate vaccines to critical sourcing countries, including Bangladesh.

“I am writing to urge you to immediately ramp up distribution of excess U.S. vaccines to Vietnam and other key partner countries,” president and CEO Steve Lamar wrote in July. “This distribution should focus on key populations in these countries, particularly those populations that are critical to the economic success of these countries to quickly foster recovery from this humanitarian crisis and, ultimately, long-term health and stability. Without such a surge in [the] targeted distribution of vaccines, Covid will instead destroy the very industries that these countries depend on for their economic livelihoods.”

In June, the United States sent 2.5 million doses of Moderna’s Covid vaccine to the South Asian nation. Another 6 million doses of Pfizer’s version are due to arrive this month. On Wednesday, however, Covax, the United Nations-backed program that aims to deliver Covid-19 vaccines equitably across the globe, cut its supply forecast for the year by roughly one-quarter from 1.9 billion doses to 1.4 billion. Public health experts have said that 11 billion are needed to curb the spread of infection.

The divide between richer and poor countries has grown even more stark during the pandemic. Fewer than 15 percent of the more than 1 billion doses pledged by Group of Seven countries and the European Union have been delivered despite the roughly 1.2 billion extra doses they’ll have available for redistribution by the end of the year, according to analytics firm Airfinity.

“How these stocks are distributed, where they go and whether they are re-sold or donated is ultimately a political decision,” Rasmus Bech Hansen, CEO of Airfinity, said in a statement Sunday. “With these numbers, I believe the world has a better basis for making these critical allocation decisions and avoiding wasted doses.”