COVID-19 : Essential punctuations of a pandemic

Istiaque Ahmed Nahian | Published: 00:00, Mar 29,2020


As the country is gripped with the fear of rapidly spreading COVID 19, all educational institutions are closed as part of preventive measures to stop the contagion. Istiaque Ahmed Nahian writes about the ways students are spending time at home and the ways they could lend their hands in facing the crisis. 

Corona, if translated into Bengali, refers to an imperative pun. A pun, which most of the people of Bangladesh are finding hard to decipher. Starting from March 8, Bangladesh has already seen several phases of the disastrous effects of this newfound enigma. One of them is popularly known as self-quarantine. Just to be clear, there is a distinct difference between quarantine and isolation. People in isolation are expected to maintain certain rules and regulations of isolation. Similarly, a person who has gone into self-quarantine means that s/he has taken a preventive measure against the virus by blocking outside contact. However, these are new ideas in the socio-cultural context of Bangladesh. The reluctant returnee Bangladeshis cannot be blamed for their misinterpretations, because all they have seen so far is the façade in the name of institutional quarantine at the Ashkona Haz camp. In reckless decision, earlier in the month, authorities concerned have allowed about 300 returnees to go home on conditions of home quarantine. We have also observed the ‘wonderful’ logic circulating in social media that Bangladeshis don’t abuse drugs or drink, so they are immune to this virus. The year 2020 also apparently ‘blessed’ us with miracles, as the religious places are still crowded despite the risk.  In these tumultuous times, the youth who are always falsely disgraced because of their apparent dependency on social media and IT gadgets can regain their honour. They can set the adult’s mind right who have left their brains on the streets ironically enough by avoiding the street itself.

Whatever the reason was, Bangladeshis were quite lacklustre about the COVID-19. People were sharing memes and jokes on social media. Some of them were a degree higher romanticising it with phrases like, ‘Love in the time of Corona.’ Marquez might be kicking himself inside his grave. We have a knack of prioritising emotion against logic. Many Facebook posts similar to the likes of, ‘We are the 90’s kids, we have grown up disinfecting tennis balls picked up from the drain with merely three drops to the walls. We are not afraid of Corona’ portray a dangerous side of the present youth psyche. But this picture needs to be proven wrong effective immediately. The youth of Bangladesh did it during the road safety movement in 2018. Time has challenged them to prove their worth again.

Things started to change after the first corona related death was reported. People, especially the youth started taking things more seriously. Although, some hand wash related public gatherings and Dua Mahfils to eradicate Corona did make us laugh. The by-election in Dhaka and elections campaign in port city, Chattogram during this time of crisis took it to the next level. It seemed as the whole nation was hallucinating due to high fever. The non-panic warnings running on televisions and radios did contain mass panic at some point, it ultimately proved to be a burden.

The present situation is depressing. It cannot be sugar-coated by any means. But we are a hopeful nation. We have to believe that we can conjure up a stream of hope even amongst this desert of madness, misinformation and negligence. Speaking of hope, Abdullah Mahmud Alauddin, a   fresh post graduate from University of Dhaka says, ‘I know it is a deadly and dangerous virus, but I can also see the positive side of it. It has made me come into terms with my spirituality. Being a workaholic for a long time has its own side effects. I knew I made the right decision when I went into self-quarantine at my village in Rajshahi. I started seeing life differently. I learned to take things easy for a change. I am reading inspirational stories of Sahabis, praying, watching some cartoons and even helping out my mom in household chores. These are things I normally would never imagine doing in my fast paced life in Dhaka.’

Abdullah now believes that the only easy day was yesterday. That means, each coming day is worse. He is astonished that it took a pandemic to warn people about the facades of everyday life. He is anxious that despite this deadly outbreak, nations will still go on creating weapons of mass destruction, rather than investing in the health sector for the betterment of mankind. Quoting from Sura Ad Dukhan (44:15) he says, ‘Indeed, We will remove the torment for a little. Indeed, you [disbelievers] will return [to disbelief].’

All the malls and offices were closed except for the grocery and the pharmacies. People started taking things more seriously after the deployment of Bangladesh army to keep things in order leading to contrasting posts in social media. On the one hand, we see the comforting stay at home posts of the celebrities and of the well-to-do people; on the other hand, there are posts showing law enforcement agencies harassing everyday people for being out on the street to earn their bread and butter.

Areefin Ul Hassan, a job aspirant hailing from Chittagong says, ‘For the past six months, I have been living in Dhaka. I already had to toil hard in order to balance between my Masters classes, tuitions and job exam preparations. Because of my limited allowance, I was already in self-quarantine in a way, doing nothing except studies and tuitions. This COVID-19 is rubbing salt in my wounds. I am finding it hard to concentrate on my studies, as I am constantly in fear of contagion, for me and my family members who are in Chittagong. Both of my tuitions are at a halt at the moment because of the outbreak. Keeping aside the ambitions, survival has become my primary objective.’

Social media indeed shows a partial reality. A significant number of youth in our country belongs to the working class. Currently they are out of work. The apparel industries have been indecisive about the health safety of their workers. The domestic workers are also being restricted for safety measures. They cannot even live from hand to mouth unless they are offered a helping hand in these crisis moments. Luckily, some youth led organisations have been coming forward in order to aid them. The work of Vidyanondo, 1-takar ahar (1tk meal) is doing remarkable job keeping the light of humanity burning.

The only way the youth can contribute in these times is by being vigilant. Depending solely on the official news will only further their troubles. A student of architecture department of BUET says, ‘I feel satisfied that we were among the first ones who raised their concerns regarding this issue. Although the classes were suspended within a day of our report, the initial reaction of the authority was not promising. They should have been the first ones to cancel classes and close the university.’

There are varying opinions about the online classes carried out in schools, colleges and the universities. Some of them are finding them useful, on the other hand some of them are finding them irrelevant in this challenging time. But it is advisable for them to carry out their studies considering the cruel reality of the job market in our country. Lengthening their graduation will only cause students more economic hardship. The worst victims are the Higher Secondary Certificate public examination candidates. The rescheduling of their exams will surely come in the way of their preparation, one way or another.

Bangladeshis, more specifically the privileged class and sections of traders, have shown their lopsided sense of morality when the prices of face masks rose higher than ever. The medical stores started to hoard sanitisers. Customers, who can afford, were buying supplies in bulks regardless of the public demand creating a demand shock in the market. The government officials came conducted drives against the illegal hoarders of medicinal supplies, the prime minister urged people to avoid hoarding. The youth can play their part by creating awareness among the people by reporting these traders and customers with the help of the concerned officials.

Deserted Teacher's Student Center at the University of Dhaka during the closure for COVID 19 - Adib Rahman Dhiman

There were reports of an Italy-return immigrant getting married and organising huge celebration amidst an on-going outbreak. These things prove the futility of the concerned authority in containing contagion. Siam, a newly married man said, ‘The venue for my engagement was fixed long before the outbreak. The community centre called off the event before I could cancel it. Although the relatives were a bit disappointed, I was happy. The akhd programme was later held in my house with just a few close relatives. We maintained all the safety measures. Hand wash and sanitisers were available at the entrance. Although my married life did not start the way it was supposed to be, I do not care because I am now with the love of my life. I am also doing office from home, which I am also enjoying. I told my wife that I will hold her hand forever, as long as it is sanitised.’

We should not forget about the valiant efforts of our doctors and law enforcement officials who are risking their lives every day just to keep us safe. Noor-e-Zannat, a final year student of the department of English in DU says, ‘I am really concerned about my father who has to carry on with his duties no matter what as he works in the law enforcement. I am proud of him too. This quarantined period has brought about a lot of changes inside me. I have become more caring towards my family members. I am doing the household chores regularly and helping my mother. Also, I am trying out new hobbies and indoor games which I was unable to try out before due to my busy schedule. Another aspect of my concern is the stray animals on the streets. As there are lesser people outside now, I am afraid that they might starve to death. We have become such unsocial people that we won’t be able to tell if someone is dead or is in trouble, even if they live next door. The distribution of sanitisers among the domestic helps and security guards in my area paints a different picture though.’

Talking about doctors, a medical student from Chittagong says, ‘Everyone is panicking around here. Although the situation of Chittagong has not worsened yet, it seems only a matter of time. The hospitals here are not well equipped to deal with Corona patients. I am also at risk, because I have to visit the wards once a week. Unless the doctors are supported with enough personal protection equipment they will not be able to treat the patients properly. Without taking safety measures, the virus will only spread further. Due to panic, normal respiratory patients are coming in for treatment which is also alarming. The doctors are afraid to treat them. Then again, it takes nearly two days to get the results of a suspected corona patient in Chittagong. The spread could have easily blocked in our country. We almost had two months for taking precautionary measures since the outbreak in China. The authorities did nothing despite several warnings.’

The youth should not give into whims of social media where something as precious as self-isolation in this fast paced age is wasted on making tiktok videos rather than self-reflection. The youth should use this comma, thus pause towards self-development lest it should become a full stop. They should think that is this virus a form of retaliation of the Mother Nature for all the troubles human beings have imposed upon it? Does mankind deserve this world after all its indecencies towards humanity? What good are all those nuclear weapons? What good will a USD 500 phone does if you do not check in on your parents through it? Is this world fair when the rich hoard food supplies and post relaxing selfies, where on the other hand the poor suffer due to want of work? Tell me o youth, where is thy fountain?

Istiaque Ahmed Nahian is recent graduate from the English department at the University of Dhaka.

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