MSU researcher part of team studying COVID-19 impacts on Bangladesh mortality rate and economy

December 3, 2021 - Katie Nicpon

Prabhat BarnwalIn early 2020, Prabhat Barnwal, Ph.D. , MSU assistant professor of economics, was originally part of a team with researchers from Columbia University studying how to mitigate environmental risks in rural Bangladesh as part of an NSF funded project

But that changed with the spread of the novel coronavirus and the ensuing pandemic. Facing a pause in their planned field activities, Barnwal and his team shifted their focus. 

“We were in general concerned about the lack of good data on mortality in the rural population in our study area and so we wanted to measure the impact of COVID by collecting reliable data on excess mortality,” Barnwal said. “It also seemed a good opportunity to capture the impact of the pandemic in our study villages, especially since we are going to work there for the next couple of years.” 

Barnwal designed a study with the help of MSU Ph.D. economics student Yiqian Wang and Lex van Geen, Ph.D., geochemist at Columbia University. The team worked with Innovation for Poverty Actions Bangladesh to call and ask families a series of questions about COVID-19 illness and economic impacts in several Bangladesh communities.

What they found was surprising, and was most recently published in the open access journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA Network Open) .  

“We find that the villages in our study sample did not observe excess mortality in 2020, when compared to the year before,” Barnwal said. That means that the low mortality numbers recorded by officials matched those of the team’s research. 

“In one way this should be seen as the success of Bangladesh government's policies in containing the pandemic,” Barnwal said. “But at the same time, the data also shows that people living there did face extreme economic hardships which were sustained even after the lockdown measures were taken off. So we must not ignore the economic burden on the people which remained there even after the lockdown was over.”

The team’s research results document the complexity governments face when making decisions around public safety and the economy. 

“First, these results show that many parts of the world were able to contain the pandemic in 2020 with effective non-pharmaceutical interventions,” he said. “Second, with the disproportionally large economic impact measured in our data but no increase in mortality, these results throw light on the tradeoff between economic impacts of lockdown vs public health concerns.” 

Barnwal hopes their research will provide useful insight for policy and decision makers in weighing their pandemic response options. 

“The governments in low-income countries need to take additional measures to mitigate the loss in income and employment due to COVID-19 lockdowns,” he said. “A direct policy implication is that non-pharmaceutical policy measures need to be more flexible spatially and temporally. Particularly, the tradeoffs are different when we consider urban high-density areas vs. rural low-density areas for preventive lockdowns.”

However, Barnwal recognizes that their research on the impacts of the pandemic on mortality rate and the economy in Bangladesh and in other low-income countries is only just beginning. 

“One important caveat here is that this research study was completed before the delta variant,” he explained. “Even in Bangladesh, Delta had a much bigger impact in 2021. Our data was collected before the Delta variant started spreading so we can't say anything about excess mortality and economic impacts in rural Bangladesh during 2021. This should be taken up in future research studies.” 

To read more about the project, visit: Where COVID-19's Death Grip Slipped (Briefly) - Coronavirus Coverage (