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The price of social distancing

by Shahidul Alam | Published: 00:00, Mar 30,2020

 
 

Child shipbreaking workers sleep on a metal bed. Rahman Yard in Chittagong. — Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World

RAHNUMA forwarded me Laily’s wrenching FaceBook post. Her father is dying, far away in a UK hospital. Heart breaking, holding back tears, she and her family watch from afar. Unable to touch, to hold, to caress the person who is dearest to them. This is what Corona means in real terms. It was through her research on one of my heroes, the peasant leader Abdul Hamid Khan Bhashani, and later through them staying at the Pathshala Guest House, that we got to know her. Bhashani’s principle of putting nation before self and his simple lifestyle is a very distant reality from the ruling politicians of today. Despite its pain, Laily’s post reminded me of my own dad and my childhood. I remembered dad resting in his easy chair. His belly just the right slope for us kids to use as a living slide. We used to call him bhalluk (bear), and every day as he rested after lunch, my cousins and I would line up behind the easy chair, clamber up to his shoulders and slide down his belly. Mum would freak out, as my dad had osteomyelitis as a child and had never fully recovered. His shins were always exposed and very fragile. Quite apart from wanting him to rest, the idea that we might aggravate his injury worried her. Abba was unperturbed, happy to be teddy bear to a room full of kids. We’d run back to the end of the queue to slide down again. We were always tired before Abba ever did. We didn’t think of it as physical contact in those days. When Abba died, I remember feeling the stubble that had grown on his soft skin, as I stroked him before we laid him down.

Newcomers to Bangladesh are overwhelmed by the generosity of our village folk. They love it when strangers clasp their hands, but are somewhat unsure when seconds, sometimes minutes pass, before their hands are reluctantly released. Years ago, when we at Drik were trying to improve our English skills, we struck a deal with the local office of the British Council. Unable to pay for the expensive English classes, we negotiated a barter. We would do their photography. They in turn, would teach us English. It wasn’t just language skills though, it was learning English culture. One of the first things our English teachers told us was to release the hand quickly! Prolonged physical contact could make the English squirm.

In Bangladesh, no one looks twice at two men or two women walking down the street with their arms around each other’s shoulders or holding hands or even snuggling up to each other. Sleeping in crowded rooms, it is common for men or women to be huddled up. Social distancing is at best a cute expression when wedging in to sleep is the daily reality for a large majority of Bangladesh. The ‘Ilish file’ or ‘kechki file’ (jailspeak for the way prisoners are stacked like sardines to ensure maximum fit in overcrowded cells) I had been introduced to in prison, involved physical contact of an extreme kind. It was a daily occurrence in Keraniganj jail and lingo I came across in prison songs.

I remember the king in a distant planet explaining to the Little Prince the rationale behind his orders. ‘Exactly. One must command from each what each can perform,’ the king went on. ‘Authority is based first of all upon reason.’ In a nation where social distancing would be impossible to implement, to command people to do so would be to force people into disobedience. It would make more sense to issue a command which would be useful and be reasonably followed. Perhaps to give up the common habit of spitting indiscriminately, or at least spitting in a way the spit could be contained. Non-violent prisoners, many there only because they are political opponents, should simply be released.

I now have to consciously resist my normal practice of shaking hands with rikshawalas and the guards in our office building. Not to hold hands, or embrace, takes a bit of conditioning, but is doable. Even avoiding praying together, while a sensitive topic,  is something we can perhaps achieve. But when crowding together in a small room is the daily reality for many, physical distancing is an instruction from another planet. Though not the planet the prince had found himself in.  The distancing that hurts my friend, brought on by a virus, is one that Bangladeshis too have now to contend with.

The ‘mess’ (informal dormitories) that most Bangladeshi workers live in, have crowded rooms, shared toilets and shared kitchens. Private space, a more elitist concept, is seen differently by the poor. They know options are limited for someone wishing to be alone. Averting gaze can create space. The same applies to student dormitories and police barracks. The accommodation for live-in guards, in most middle class homes and corporate offices, is no different. The urban slums that make up the bulk of our ‘vote banks,’ all share the same attributes. It is by squeezing so much out of every square inch that they can survive on earnings well below minimum living wages. The middle and upper class live in relative opulence, their wellbeing relying upon the exploitation of our workers. Their parasitic lifestyle a product of the inequality that perpetuates their wealth. To change the system would require a change in that social order. Removing a building block would bring down the entire house of cards.

So what then is the answer? In the short term, ensuring subsistence wages and food distribution until the pandemic can be contained, could work. A mechanism already put in place by Mamata Banerjee across the border. But then she is an elected leader to whom public opinion matters. In her case, it would be expensive, but nowhere near as much as the complete breakdown of the system. Our treasury is already depleted and emptying it cannot be our solution. The billions that have been spirited away by corrupt politicians, unscrupulous businessmen (and women), self-seeking bureaucrats (both civilian and military), and by all-sorts-of cronies, could easily pay for this and more.  Adding tax burdens to make up for plundered loot, cannot be the answer. Bringing back that money is. Of course there is no apparent political will to make this happen. Not when votes are no longer necessary. But the interest of the corrupt few cannot be allowed to ruin an entire nation. Unless there is a public demand for the return of our looted wealth, and the will to see it through, we are hurtling into an abyss. If ever there was a time for things to change, this is it.

In the long term, a shift from an exploitative system of governance and total restructuring of our society, where the poor are finally seen as fellow human beings has to be the way. If that were to happen, COVID-19 might even be a blessing in the long run. No longer can these plunderers be given a free ride. It is time for us to rise up. Time for this looting to end. On the early morning of the 5th December 1990, when we had just deposed the autocratic general Ershad, I remember Shimul Yousuf singing out under the streetlamps in Paltan, ‘Bichar poti tomar bichar korbe jara aj jegechche shei jonota’. (O Judge, the people who will try you have now risen). Sadly, Shimul has stopped singing, but rise we shall.

Laily’s father has since passed away.

Shahidul Alam is a photographer, writer and curator.

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