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Could Bangladesh Be on the Brink of a Full-Blown Health Crisis?

The world’s second-largest clothing-manufacturing country is facing a slew of struggles: coronavirus, cholera and contracted capacity owed to shrinking sourcing.

It’s a combination of challenges that could see the country’s supply chains imperiled over a longer term than Western brands and retailers might have anticipated.

“At least for the next six months we will not see any recovery,” Dr. Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA), said during a panel discussion hosted by Fibre2Fashion last week. At present, though factories are largely reopened, they are “mostly running at 55 percent capacity,” she said, with sourcing demand down. Bangladesh, according to Huq, will be looking at a “post-COVID reconstruction of the industry.”

First, however, it has to get to the post-COVID-19 period—but the country’s case counts have been climbing.

On Sunday the World Health Organization (WHO) reported 2,856 new coronavirus cases in Bangladesh, bringing its total case count to 84,379 and its fatalities to 1,139. On Saturday, 3,471 new cases were reported, as were 46 deaths. For comparison, new cases in China came in at 58 on Sunday, bringing its total number of COVID-19 cases reported by WHO to 84,729. The U.S. reported 22,133 new cases, taking its total to 2.03 million. Brazil, which in recent days became the second-hardest-hit country after the U.S., reported 25,982 new cases, bringing its total number of persons infected with the virus to 828,810.

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What’s more, with a health care system already overwhelmed in battling the pandemic, with many patients unable to get the care they need, vaccinations for other viruses have been less accessible, sparking other outbreaks.

Rangamati, a city in Bangladesh’s Chittagong Hills region, has reported a measles outbreak already affecting as many as 300 and killing 10 children, according to local news. Bangladesh is also seeing cases of diphtheria and cholera, The New York Times reported Sunday, and with the country’s monsoon season getting underway this month, heavy rains could also increase the risk of diseases like cholera.

“Recent assessments have shown that due to the ongoing lockdown measures there is a significant decrease in access and provision of essential health services such as immunization, treatment of acute malnutrition and safe deliveries across the region,” a UNICEF report at the beginning of May said of the South Asia region. And the situation has only escalated since then. “South Asia region could face a further public health crisis as children miss routine vaccinations as lockdown measures across the region have halted immunization drives and parents refrained from taking their children to health facilities for vaccinations.”

The humanitarian concerns in Bangladesh have been exacerbated by Western brands’ lack of support for their garment suppliers, and cancelled or deferred order payments that have left workers without wages. And with many laborers out of work—and pay—malnutrition is climbing and worsening people’s ability to fight illness.

“The hardest hit has been this industry,” Huq said, adding that from March to May, the liability for Bangladesh manufacturers has already reached “almost $5 billion.” “At the same time, our workers have been hit very, very hard.”

If COVID-19 and other viruses continue to spread in the country, it could prompt more lockdowns, it will mean more garment workers facing destitution, and it will ultimately translate to less access to viable supply chains there.

For the fashion industry to truly carry forward ethically, it’s going to take injecting a much greater level of humanism into the conversation, Huq said. Fashion must remember that it’s more than just factories fabricating clothing to sell. It’s people—whose livelihoods are very much at stake—making those clothes to supply brands and retailers with product to push. And whether the industry is prepared to admit it or not, the interconnectedness of the supply chain means their businesses could also topple if they fail to protect the product and the people.

“COVID has been a great wakeup call for us, it’s been a great equalizer,” Huq said. “We will be facing a lot of losses and everything, but at the end of the day if we stay committed to the relationship” then the industry will be able to move forward meaningfully, she added.

The pandemic, Huq said, “will wipe off around $297 billion worth of the global apparel chain.” Consumption will drop, prices may drop, but consciousness and commitment can’t plummet in line, she added.

“Let’s adopt a better and more human strategy so that we don’t lose out on jobs, so that we also are mindful of what we ought to do and how we position the human story to every consumer out there,” Huq said. “Different standards cannot be applicable anymore.”