In a state experiencing more than seven per cent GDP growth for the past three years and with an unexpectedly good stock of rice and crops before the lockdown, it is shocking how our process of relief donation went down. Even when the state was struggling, certain factions did show us how to get positive social outcomes and that one-party rule is not always the answer to how to deal with the pandemic. We need a plan forward, and we need it now, writes Anujit Saha
MOST of Europe is getting ready to get its wheel turning again, hoping that the worst is behind them. Spain announced a four-stage relaxation process, allowing only certain sectors to reopen to ensure there is no resurgence of the virus that has cost almost 30,000 Spanish lives till mid-May. Marking the beginning of the nation’s ‘deconfinement’, the French president Emmanuel Macron surprisingly commanded schools across the nation to open up with precautions. Slovenia recorded less than seven cases per day for the past week and became the first European nation to call off its national lockdown, allowing schools, businesses, and cafes to reopen. Boris Johnson though gave off unclear instructions to his nation but strategically it seems like he wants to open up not only Britain but the whole of the United Kingdom sooner rather than later.
In most of these states, decision making is often slowed down and complicated by the presence of polarising politics. For instance, the minority socialist government of Pedro Sanchez of Spain received heat from its right-wing opposition parties when trying to extend its lockdown till the end of May. The message of his opposition parties resonated with the common people who wanted to work and earn again, but it was a cheap blow to gain popularity at a time of crisis.
In the United Kingdom, there are stark contrasts in the policy-making of Britain and Wales about how soon the lockdown should be lifted. In much of Paris, the mayors and governors are deciding not to obey Macron’s call of opening up its educational institutions. The difference in policies is even more apparent in the United States where you see blue states such as California vouching for extension of lockdowns, whereas red states such as Texas champion the movement of getting the economy running again and opening businesses up.
In Bangladesh however, we don’t seem to have many choices. Weakened opposition parties, unorganised trade unions, and the oligarchy of powerful corporations resulted in governance with no competition or accountability. In libertarian views, such situations are undesirable. During a pandemic, however, we have seen nations with authoritarian regimes being able to utilise its widespread influence to best control the spread. Vietnam used its surveillance strategies to track the movement of people in regions where the number of cases was high, while China used its law enforcement to maintain strict and complete lockdowns. But how well did our regime do in terms of controlling the spread?
One of its biggest blunders was the failure to realize that there is no global synchronisation or time frame to deal with this virus. While Wuhan was being rampaged by the novel coronavirus, here at home everything was normal and people like me who wore a mask to the streets were taunted as alarmists. Our institutions were unscathed by the global spread of this virus even after its recognition as a pandemic by the World Health Organization on March 11. We must remember the timeline specific to our country as it helps us understand that we are in a much different phase of the curve than other nations geographically near to us, such as India and Pakistan.
Russia is the best example of a state that tried to hasten its process of easing lockdown, mimicking its European counterparts. Many speculate it was a populist decision by Putin to assert Russian dominance at a time its biggest western rival is at its lowest. This spurred a rapid increase in infection and deaths; the capital city of Moscow accounted for 60 per cent of the recorded deaths. As the graph shows, there has been an average of 10,000 recorded cases per day for almost two weeks.
This model is scary and in our worst-case scenario might be the model most comparable to ours. Our nation is also undergoing a premature relaxation of the ‘general holidays’ without any proper guidelines or protocols. The identified number of cases has crossed 50,000 in Bangladesh. What’s scarier is the centralisation of the cases within areas of high economic activity such as Gazipur, Naryanganj, and Narsinghdi. Regions such as Lalbagh, Rajabazar, Mohammadpur are the red zones within the capital, where the cramped population and presence of low-income earners have resulted in absence of proper social distancing measures, thus the most number of infections.
The lockdown exposed the desperation and hardship of migrant workers throughout the world. We laughed and swore at the people who snuck into the capital, hiding in drums and boxes. If you look into it more humanely though, that is the level of desperation these workers feel to earn a meager pay to support those back at home. But it does not mean we should let these people make these difficult choices. Proper relief implementation could have brought these vulnerable people enough food to sustain for another month, buying our nation some valuable time in our fight against this rapidly spreading virus.
In a state experiencing more than seven per cent GDP growth for the past three years and with an unexpectedly good stock of rice and crops before the lockdown, it is shocking how our process of relief donation went down. Irrespective of how many expert discussions and analyses we had from economists, policymakers and NGO workers over the months, the corruption on the part of upazila chairmen and government officials obstructed the redistribution efforts from the state. The lack of a proper database of the vulnerable and poor, invalid ration cards, and the lack of bargaining power of the impoverished resulted in a complete lack of accountability of these welfare policies.
Such obstructions were so widespread that even the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, recognised the issue and demanded better implementation. Given this problem was noted, the state had to move on to adjust to the reality -- some workers need to be allowed to work to sustain as the relief plan failed. Notably, the ready-made garment workers were one of those major groups that the garment factory owners desperately wanted back in the sweatshops. After rounds of lobbying, it was decided that the workers would return to the factories after maintaining the break for less than a month. But to the workers, death from the virus would be more bearable than that from starvation. They agreed to be played as the pawns in the game for corporate profits.
The least the factory owners could have done in exchange was to provide transport along with proper protective gear for these workers from out of town. The stories of workers having to walk hundreds of kilometers into the town to secure their jobs was another glaring evidence of the exploitation of workers by an industry that has made millions of dollars out of every economic quarter for the past decade. It is also worth pointing out the garment factory owners were the first to receive a financial grant as a stimulus package from the state. Unfortunately, the money did not trickle down to the pockets of already grossly underpaid laborers. This was evident through demonstrations by workers and their disobedience of lockdown to reach out to their factories to get their pay. Hence, the first move from the state backfired due to poor planning and for being weak in their negotiation with the influential business people who seemed to be calling the shots.
More recently, the decision to open up markets projects dreadful consequences. The districts of Manikganj and Tangail saw a spike in its number of cases; health experts attribute it to the sprawl of consumers into the town markets for Eid shopping. Both districts decided to bring back their lockdown measures with strict law enforcement and policing. As we head towards Eid, many parts of our nation will go through similar challenges as we keep on normalising the situation each passing day with our illusion of COVID-19 resistance.
Even when the state was struggling, certain factions did show us how to get positive social outcomes and that one-party rule is not always the answer to how to deal with the pandemic. In late April, a great fear struck the farmers as it was time for the long-awaited harvest of the Boro rice. The restriction in intercity movements resulted in a shortage of labour in these fields as most farmers depend on migrant workers to help them out seasonally. A lot depended on this harvest in terms of national food production as the Boro produce was projected to be a ‘bumper’ yield due to seasonal factors.
Both the ministry of agriculture and leftist political factions worked in unison to help out these farmers. Activists from the Communist Party of Bangladesh, Socialist Party of Bangladesh, Bangladesh Students Union, and other parties from the Left Democratic Alliance immersed themselves into the service of the farmers. Coupled with the manual labor, the state-sponsored combined harvester machines helped the farmers collect their yield in a very short period. Such co-ordination showed to us the importance of alliance and depolarisation of parties along lines that are vital to us at the time of national emergency.
Due to the centralisation of issues in our state, we are not used to policies that are subjective to the demands of varying demographic. This idea is worth remembering during our plans of moving to our next phase of the lockdown. For instance, the Spanish government only relaxed lockdowns in regions that met certain criteria, resulting in Madrid to remain closed after assessing its high-risk factor. The theoretical value of R varies from place to place, and most nations have used data analysts to figure out its value based on the number of cases, population density, and age distribution of the population. Even though such figures are hard to obtain due to the low number and unplanned testing in Bangladesh, it is safe to say that the R-value is highest in the capital.
The recent work of genome sequencing of the virus strain in our region does give us hope about finding out more about the nature of it. A group from the Child Health Research Foundation, led by Dr Samir Saha, successfully sequenced the strain which is currently being checked with the database of GISAID where strains from other regions are stored. The information about the origin of this strain could give us the much needed sense of direction and understanding of our model via extrapolation. But till then, the capital seems to be in danger. The entry points to Dhaka such as Aminbazar and Gabtali have already started to witness traffic congestion as people move in.
The impact of the decision to open up mosques and markets is yet to be seen, but immunologists and health officials believe the worst is to come in weeks ahead. On the other hand, districts such as Narail has not recorded any new case for the past week and announced it is free of the virus. Even if it is too early to say, I think the policies of moving forward in that state should be radically different from the protocol to be maintained in the red zones such as Dhaka and Chattogram. With that being said, we need to know what these protocols are to be as soon as possible.
We need a plan forward, and we need it now!
Anujit Saha is a writer who wants to work for the Jacobin someday
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