Can the government turn a chaotic start into a good end? 

by M Adil Khan | Published: 00:00, Apr 07,2020


A wave of home-goers breaks army cordon to board a ferry at Shimulia ghat in Munshiganj on Sunday after a last-minute decision to extend the holiday for garment workers until April 11. — Sourav Lasker

CONTRARY to the common belief that the Bangladesh government has been least prepared and that its responses to COVID-19 have been ad hoc and impulsive, it is important to note that the government did have an elaborate plan, ‘National Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19’, Bangladesh. The Plan was prepared under the guidance of the Directorate General of Health, Government of Bangladesh, in March 2020. s

For some unexplained reasons, the plan apparently was never made public. The plan envisages four levels of COVID-19 responses: Level 1 is when ‘no cases is detected in the country’ and this relates pre-COVID-19 preparedness; Level 2 is when ‘imported cases and limited human-human transmission’ has occurred and this relates to actions concerning returned Bangladeshi expatriates; Level 3 is when there is a ‘cluster of cases’ which relates to actions aimed at ‘containment’ of the virus; and finally, Level 4 — the highest level —  is the stage of ‘community transmission’ and ‘mitigation’ actions.

Like most plans, test of their utility is not in their textual beauty but in implementation and this is where the Bangladesh government may have faltered quite badly. For example, instead of utilising the Level 1 Response period — ‘no cases are detected in the country’ — in preparing for what might be needed for Levels 2–4, the government — especially some of its ministers — used this time in engaging in mindless bravados and denials. As a result, when the problem struck, actions on Levels 2–4 fell by the wayside. For example, due to neglect of Level 1 preparatory actions, government’s Level 2 responses relating to ‘imported cases and limited human-human transmission’ ended in complete fiasco. Similarly, Level 3 responses — ‘containment’ of the virus — that included, among other things, testing and sending people in social isolation also experienced similar chaos.

Testing is a key component of COVID-19 containment and yet the level of preparedness — supply of testing equipment and other related logistics etc — have been far from ideal, if not dismal resulting in pitifully low rate of testing - Bangladesh’s current rate of testing rate, 10 per million, is the ‘lowest in the world’ which, to say the least is deeply worrying.

These foul-ups only reveal the government’s ineptness in implementing its own plan. With these failures under its sleeves and now that the country is marching fast towards Level 4, the highest level, the stage when infection reaches the community level and multiplies infections and causes deaths exponentially and also given that Bangladesh’s below par preparedness and its inefficient and inadequate public health system, there are estimates that anything between half a million and a staggering 2 million may die of COVID-19.

Admitted that these estimates that have been based on mathematical modelling are highly speculative and therefore, may or may not come true. Regardless, it is important for the government to factor in these projections especially if these are generated by credible institutions, in the formulation of its COVID-19 Plan.

Good news is that various statements and newspaper reports indicate that even though the government is fully aware of the gravity of the situation and is doing all it can. However, it is also apparent that more would need to be done.

Addressing COVID-19 requires actions at multiple levels. What would work for the rich would not work for the poor. For example, restrictions in movements or home isolations worked largely for the rich especially in cities and in fact some of them are treating it as a holiday, indulging themselves in picnic like activities at their respective homes.  The Poor especially those who earn by the day and live by the day are not so fortunate. To them, social isolation is virtual death warrants and yet, there have been instances where they were humiliated when out of desperation some of them had to venture out, in search of work.

Lately, prompted by the directive of the boss of the RMG factory owners who by defying  the government ruling on social isolation asked the workers to come to Dhaka to get their wages only to be told to go back, while hundreds walked miles and reached Dhaka and hundreds caught in between, on highways. This is yet another example of monumental and tragic lapse in policy coordination.

The Government must find some creative and organised ways to solve the problem of the disadvantaged people which are unique.

What may also be needed on an urgent basis is to give clear instructions to all agencies, government and non-government, and the charities, institutional and private, not just what they must do but also what they must not.

Furthermore, given Bangladesh’s limited resources and its corrupt, inept and weakened institutions, and also the fact that those who are at the forefront of implementation of government policies namely the bureaucrats,  party workers, self-proclaimed volunteers and dis-interested well-wishers who either employ bullying as preferred tactic or use the crisis as a public relations opportunity and thus do precious little to inspire confidence among the sufferers must be restrained and at the same time, it may also be helpful to look for alternative institutions that are competent, adept at handling crisis and are trusted by people, those that can implement its Plan, objectively, stringently and most importantly, sensitively.

COVID-19 challenges are not limited to health; its economic fallouts are expected to be huge and prolonged and worldwide, including Bangladesh. While some short-term measures are needed to tide over some of the immediate challenges relating to loss of businesses and jobs, strategic thinking and innovative policies are needed to respond to the significant shifts and changes that are imminent on the global market, in the coming days.

Bangladesh’s current economic architecture which has served it well for the last three decades or so may prove to be not so relevant to the post COVID-19 evolving global economic scenario anymore and, therefore, there is an urgent need to think proactively and make changes early so that relevant adjustments can be made, keeping in mind that most crises that destroy existing arrangements also create new opportunities and COVID-19 would be no exception. Bangladesh would do well to put its best brains together to identify new opportunities and tap onto those at the earliest.

In the backdrop of the above and given the complexities of the problem, the question that must be asked is, can Bangladesh do it — can it reverse its chaotic beginning to a good end?

I believe Bangladesh can and in this regard, I echo claims of many in the government and outside that if Bangladeshis were able to fight a difficult war of independence and win, it can also win its fight against COVID-19, just that it needs to remind itself of a couple of important issues and these are that in the 1971 war of liberation, no casualties were big enough whereas in the COVID-19 fight, minimisation of casualties is the most important goal and secondly, and this is key, that the war of liberation was fought by all and not by a particular group or a section of people and that this was its core strength.

In sum, the coronavirus-induced crisis would cause many shifts and changes in the coming days. Countries with strong public institutions with a focus on public wellbeing-oriented policies where resources and sciences are designed to respond to the needs of people, where leaderships promote inclusion and think strategically and not opportunistically and are socially conscious, would come to the top. It may also help us to remember that such countries are not gifts of god but are creations of citizens.

COVID-19 has put us all, at home and abroad, onto a Titanic — the journey is going to be long, arduous and hazardous. Everyone, rich and poor, the government and non-government organisations and the opposition are on the same ship, travelling together. Therefore,  we must plan and act inclusively and share responsibilities and navigate our way out of the hazard, together, for if we don’t and instead behave callously, divisively and selfishly, we all would go down with the difference that some of us may be travelling in the upper deck, in the first class!


M Adil Khan is professor of development practice, School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and a former senior policy manager of the United Nations.

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