First Person: Bangladesh’s Road to Recovery

September 1, 2020

By Shehzeen Choudhury

I struggled to breathe through the N95 mask. The moisture on the safety goggles made it difficult to see. Every seat on the plane was occupied and I could hear anxious chatter around me. I sat in my uncomfortable polyester suit, waiting for the journey to end. Flying during the COVID-19 pandemic is an experience I will never forget.

On this Dhaka-to-New York flight, I could not stop thinking about all that I was leaving behind and what lay ahead. In 2012, I moved to Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, for a one-year work assignment and ended up staying for eight. In early June this year, after a kidney stone diagnosis and hospital visits as coronavirus surged in Dhaka, I decided to return to the United States to be with family. It felt strange. I was leaving one country severely affected by the pandemic for another which had the highest number of positive cases in the world.

It has been three months since my return. Today, Bangladesh is one of the 10 countries with the highest number of active COVID-19 cases, and America is still first on the list. I work from my parents’ home and stay up at odd hours to keep in touch with friends in Dhaka. A few of them are young entrepreneurs, finding innovative ways to tackle COVID-induced challenges.

I listen to their stories about work, life, and the new normal. Their survival strategies and resilience in the face of adversity make me hopeful for a safer and better future.

Shehzeen Choudhury
On the left, Shehzeen Choudhury boards a flight in Dhaka in June. On the right, Shehzeen without her layers of PPE. Photos: Shehzeen Choudhury (L), Mostofa Hamza Mehedi (R)

Patience is the best strategy

Yasir Obaid and I connected a few years ago, even though our mothers have been friends since college. Quiet and quirky, his mind is always teeming with ideas and business plans.

Before his 36th birthday last November, Obaid and his partner launched Cupcake Exports Limited to manufacture soft toys and newborn accessories. In March of this year, when Bangladesh’s first three coronavirus cases were reported, they made the decision to manufacture personal protective equipment for the government of Bangladesh free of charge. On March 25, a nationwide lockdown was announced, and the factory gates remained shut for the next two months.

As the private sector struggled to cope, the government announced a $590 million stimulus package for export-oriented businesses to help ensure workers would be paid from April to June. It was a saving grace for a start-up like Obaid’s. They did not have to cut salaries or jobs. When the factory reopened in June, more than 200 workers went through safety training before rejoining work.

“Inertia is a terrible thing. If you lose momentum, it can be difficult to keep moving–and expensive too,” said Obaid. This time, his strategy was to be patient. As to whether life or livelihood is more important, he has a quick response: “Life is definitely first, but we need to strike a balance, so we can sustain our business and workers can feed their families.”

Adaptability is key

We started chatting online while in quarantine, so I have technology to thank for my friendship with Tanim Ud Dowlah. Calm and kind, he is always there to give advice on how to improve both physical and mental health.

Four years ago, Dowlah finished his medical licensing exams in New York and returned to Bangladesh to help manage his family business, EON Group of Industries. Now, at 29, he is a director at EON Bio Science, an integrated dairy farm in northern Rangpur district. In September last year, the company flew in 225 cows from Australia and set up a milk processing plant, creating over 30 jobs for local people.

When the pandemic hit, his business went digital. They had international experts joining via Zoom to train staff on safety protocols and facilitate orientations on installing equipment and caring for cows. In May, under special permission for essential transports, their chiller vans began delivering fresh milk to grocery stores and households in Dhaka.

Facebook has been the company’s primary marketing tool, even after lockdown ended. In two months’ time, they plan to launch their phone app–Baqarah–to make home deliveries easier. “Adaptability is key. Our operations were disrupted, but we embraced new technology to tackle the challenges. Now, we are back on track,” Dowlah said.

At EON Bio Science in Rangpur, staff received online training for vaccinating cows. Photo: Nanto Mohammadullah

Lives versus livelihoods

When people in Bangladesh were divided over the lives versus livelihoods debate, one of my closest friends, Humaira Farhanaz, had to face challenges on both fronts. Her mother tested positive for COVID-19 and had to be hospitalized. At the same time, Farhanaz worried about paying salaries for 43 staff not working because of the lockdown.

Humaira Farhanaz believes that business will revive after the pandemic. Photo: Shihab Zafar

In 2012, when Farhanaz was only 29, she opened Just Juice–a juice and salad bar–with her husband and small team of 10. Eight years on, she has four outlets at food courts in hospitals and offices, and one in a school cafeteria. When the virus spread, public eateries were closed, and the only option was home delivery. Unfortunately, with no revenue and no extension for rent, it was difficult to keep the kitchen running.

An advocate for health and wellness, Farhanaz said, “This is the time when people need healthy food and fresh juices that boost immunity. Unfortunately, juices don’t taste the same if not delivered fast, and we cannot compromise on quality.” She decided to stay optimistic and wait for food courts to reopen.

Finally, on September 1, two outlets were able to open their doors to customers after ensuring necessary safety measures. Farhanaz, who is also as a youth and gender specialist for the United Nations, tells me, “Livelihood is important, but safety comes first.”

“Business is a game of chess”

For a lucky few, business has flourished, even in crisis. My friend Shawn Hakim is one of them.

When the lockdown began, Hakim, Managing Director of Suzuki Bangladesh, asked me, “What do you think will happen?” Of course, I had no idea. Then, from 3,500 sales in March, their motorcycle sales plummeted to 400 in just a month.

Hakim, a successful businessman at 39, always says: “Business is like a game of chess. You always need to be three steps ahead. Be humble, but also be proactive and don’t let the uncertainties pull you down.”

In May, Suzuki reopened its doors with limited capacity and social distancing measures. Hakim found demand quickly rebounded. The high demand made it apparent that people preferred riding motorcycles to public transport. Discounted prices also helped attract customers and manage competition in the market. In May alone, they sold 5,500 bikes, exceeding pre-pandemic sales. Today, Suzuki has more than 600 staff in Bangladesh. They are hiring to keep up with growing demand.

Ensuring safety for customers and staff at Suzuki Express Service in Dhaka. Photo: Khalid Bin Yusuf

My friends’ stories of struggle and success give me courage. They reassure me that those who have stumbled are rising to rebuild in their own ways. We are oceans apart, but our goals are the same. I believe we are a resilient people in a resilient world, on the road to recovery. As they say, the sky’s the limit.

I can’t wait to fly back to see my friends.

Published in September 2020