While COVID-19 is wreaking havoc across the globe, media reports show how underprepared Bangladesh government is for the pandemic, despite having more than two months to take necessary measures. A pandemic of this scale will destabilise the market and carry risk of creating serious food shortage. How are we going to tackle the situation, asks Ridwanul Haque
WHILE I am writing this, fireworks in Wuhan are making its way into news media. Wuhan, the suspected birthplace of the COVID-19 virus, went into complete lockdown since January 23 this year. Last week, in a pocket of three-days, no newly Corona infected patient was found (though new patients emerged after the short break). The hope of imminent restoration of normalcy in life brought forth the celebration. Still, the fear of getting infected left many people homebound. China’s way of handling the situation is winning praise all over the world and it has started extending its helping hands to other countries by sending doctors, protective kits and medicines.
Situation outside China is grim, death toll is on the rise and Italy is now in so tatters that its prime-minister’s parliamentary speech did sound helpless recently. Iran is following the same path. France, Spain and Germany are going to join the rank of Italy, if they fail to undertake pre-emptive measures before the disease reach the community-transmission phase. Specialist-suggested pre-emptive measures mainly recommended people to ‘stay home, stay safe’, aka, self-quarantine and ‘wash hands and wear mask’. And, for the government, it has asked to enforce complete lockdown in sensitive zones and make sure it does not spread more. It took till 11th March for the World Health Organisation to call the Corona attack a pandemic.
Bangladesh reported the first Corona patient on March 8. Since then, the number is on the rise and the government is all over the place. Many of the law makers’ remarks on COVID-19 were mockery and triggered both satirical and angry reactions in social media and media. Doctors are not provided with enough Personal Protection Equipment, pharmacies and drug stores are running out of medicines and possible carriers of COVID-19 are moving around like the invisible phantoms of the opera. The homecoming of our expatriates in search of safe-shelter, combined with our inefficient and shortsighted administration, activated a ticking time bomb right when the outbreak was spreading in different countries.
News on Corona is eating up the time and space in public-spaces, mostly spreading panic and bearing omens. Cherry picking of perspectives is just worsening the situation by spreading rumors, confusing people and spurring debates. A man even died in Rajbari in a brawl (that left 20 others injured on March 22) while arguing whether Corona is a contagious disease or not! Moreover, the religious leaders started selling their versions of the epidemic. The nature of the disease and the distance of the ground zero from here did allow us more than two-month to take necessary steps. But our government took it so lightly that it was busy arranging countrywide Mujib Centenary. The time bomb that bought us significant time to analyse and predict the trajectory of the virus and take pre-emptive measures to deactivate it but, boom, the death news of the first corona patient ran amok! New news, most of them — bad ones renewed new frenzy.
Now it is making sense. Quarantine process is gaining momentum, most of the people are afraid to go out. The government opened quarantine centers, exits in airports came under surveillance where incoming Corona suspects are kept under observations. In some places, quarantine is imposed, and law enforcement agencies are keeping them in check. But, the most vulnerable are the rootless people and day laborers who dwell in the streets and the slums.
They have no employment guarantee and the lack of social safety-net to survive this period leaves them in mayhem. They are bound to go out to live hand to mouth. They have no access to pure drinking water and proper sanitation. Remember, people living in Dhaka’s slums contribute more or less than 8 per cent of the capital’s total GDP, which also hides the fact that their labour is the engine room of the capital’s economy that adds 30 per cent to the country GPD.
The price of foods and other necessities have skyrocketed and the stores are running out of food supplies. Speculation of an upcoming crisis has resulted into a demand shock in the market. Lack of state intervention for a long while might trigger stagflation where high unemployment rate and high inflation rate will chase each other. The poor will suffer the most. A famine might be knocking at the door.
We might stop that or could mitigate to some significant extent. Just a few months ago, drastically low price of paddy made news headlines. The farmers were not even paid for the production cost. The government did not respond with appropriate measures.
One strategy suggests conducting a survey on the quantity of the agricultural products that are going to be produced in particular harvesting season and estimate domestic demand of those products. If huge surplus is expected, the government will contact buyers abroad to facilitate export. And if deficit is there, facilitate import as soon as possible before the market goes berserk.
Agricultural economy is quite unpredictable. Each year’s price of a particular crop influences following year’s agricultural activities, ceteris paribus. Just a few years ago, one of our must have spices, turmeric, had high market price that incentivised farmers to launch large scale production. This came as a boomerang as bumper harvest of turmeric exceeded quantity-demanded and its price fell to record low. This led the farmers to cultivate less turmeric in the following year and quantity-supplied fell, that triggered an increase in turmeric price.
The government could use other policy instruments too. A stock could be set up to buy good fractions of the surplus paddy and stocks. As the single largest buyer, the government could ensure that the farmers get the fare price. During food crisis, the government could release and sell from that stock to rescue customers from paying more.
This stock is called ‘Buffer Stock’. Thus, government intervention, if taken accordingly, can be of great help during such difficult periods. As a country with a mixed economy, although the share of government spending is far less and lacks accountability, alternatives needed to be explored. But our government failed to consider and take such steps.
We have serious malnutrition problems and food crisis will just add much more to this misery. Add to this, according to a report published in 2018, Bangladeshi people bear the highest out-of-pocket expenditure among the South Asian countries for health care. In terms of providing access to quality health care, it ranked 133rd among 195 countries while its size of the GDP was 43rd. And, keep in mind that we have only one doctor per 11,000 people. If doctors’ safety is not properly ensured, no one will be left untouched. They are the heroes to rely upon during such crisis.
The Corona, if gains momentum and runs medieval, many people will lose their lives. The estimates might count the number of lives lost and financial damages done in monetary terms. But the loss of beloved ones, the psychological wound it will inflict will affect people socio-politically and culturally and that is not measurable.
We do not know for whom the bell tolls. The four horsemen — omen of apocalypse — are may be on the roads to bring on pestilence, war, famine and death. A research conducted by group of researcher in Bangladesh showed that if the government fails to take appropriate measures to reduce and muffle the outbreak, within next two months, nearly nine million people could get infected and more than half of a million could die.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel, but it is time consuming and might be expensive too. According to the WHO, no less than 20 drugs are under testing phase and it takes 18 months in general to complete the whole process. If at least one of these proves effective, the plight of the disease will come under control depending on production costs and availability; the sooner the better. Some experts said that the progress is impressive as the scientist of China decoded the virus’ genome in early phase of its development. Till then, please listen to the experts’ advice.
Ridwanul Haque is interested in political economy and cultural anthropology.
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