You can make sense of neutron bombs
But not human beings! — Helal Hafiz, ‘An Obscene Civilisation’
The goal of all life, as Sigmund Freud would have said it, is death. In other words, the story of human civilisation is a story of cultivated inhumanity. The global defense expenditure stands at $2 trillion in 2019, which raises a moral question about the opportunity cost in terms of spending on health, agriculture, education, housing and overall sustainable development. The twist of capitalism is that as profit motive becomes paramount, the inhumane drive of self-maximization pervades the entire society. When systemic greed meets dysfunctional institutions, corruption thrives.
As we are well into the fourth month into the COVID-19 outbreak, the total number of patients who tested positive inches towards one and half lac and the number of deaths crossed the two-thousand bar. Almost everyone now knows someone close by to have been affected by the symptoms of the virus. Renowned intellectuals, seasoned bureaucrats, business tycoons, health workers, and ordinary citizens have lost their lives in their fight with the invisible organism. While everyone tries to cope with the alarm and morbidity in the air, a section is trying to make a sordid fortune out of the crisis.
The overwhelming majority of the frontline fighters — policy makers, administrators, physicians, or essential workers — are demonstrating exceptional integrity and grit in the face of an unprecedented havoc. Yet, the remorseless graft of a minority of government employees, public representatives, businesses and private hospitals are hindering effective response to the outbreak and its socio-economic fallout.
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may — Robert Herrick
A brief mapping of the main sectors in which COVID-related corruption is happening reveals interesting details. Crooks have been found unsurprisingly in the public administration — the powerhouse of an overtly bureaucratically governed nation — but also in local government and private sector businesses.
The viral outbreak laid bare the unthinkable fragility of our health sector. The number of intensive care units for treating critically ill patients is terribly low. Lack of medical equipment restricts doctors’ efforts to treat the patients. Colluding forces, known in the local parlance as syndicates, create artificial crisis of health equipment, thwarting companies that have sufficient reserve of corona testing kits from supplying to the point of use. The health ministry aided by international development organisations took initiatives to procure personal protective equipment, masks, goggles, and other health equipment for the government hospitals. Incredibly, in certain cases costs, according to news reports, estimated in the procurement process have been found to be four times the original market price. Earlier, in-depth investigations into health sector by Anti-Corruption Commission unearthed the endemic corruption that has bled the sector dry. When the survival of the entire populace hinges on the availability of adequate medical facilities, the health sector mafia are die hard. Had the cost been estimated honestly, four times more health equipment could have been procured, additional lives could have been saved. The corruption bonanza was not centered on medical equipment alone. Imaginative figures were suggested for software and website development. Large financial allocations were made for paying honorarium for seminars and conferences. Not only estimated costs of these services were fancied too high, the utility of these services are questionable given that fundamental health products are short of supply.
The local government, rural development and cooperatives ministry has suspended no less than 104 public representatives for irregularities in relief distribution since the start of coronavirus outbreak. Misappropriation of funds or relief goods and manipulating the lists of beneficiaries are probably the two main graft ploys. At the local government level, embezzlement of public resources was a problem even prior to the coronavirus outbreak, but seems to have escalated in the times of a national crisis.
Private sector health care industry is also not immune from malfeasance. Doctors have been risking death and a significant number of healthcare professionals have died. While their humanism and professional ethic lights a ray of hope in these dark hours, certain businesses and private hospitals have seized upon the COVID-19 as an opportunity for brisk profit. Price of oxygen cylinder shot up in certain areas and a few private hospitals are charging exorbitant prices for their services.
When the city burns, even the temples of the gods are not spared.
— Bharatchandra Roy
No one is invulnerable to the new virus. Friends and family members of even the rich and the powerful have fallen victim. Imminent risk of death usually modifies our behaviour by triggering the primal instincts of fight or flight. It boggles mind to surmise what motives may be inducing the corrupt to keep stealing during catastrophic time. Fear of death doesn’t hold them back. Do they have some twisted risk perception that makes them believe that they or their family will somehow escape the viral scourge?
In rare instances of heroism, people stick to their guns in the face of certain destruction. When the ship RMS Titanic was sinking the eight musicians on board decided to keep on playing their routines as the terrified passengers ran for their lives. The musicians sank with the ship — still at their act — and are today remembered for their heroism. History remembers another musician for the same grit, although for opposite effects: when Rome was burning, as the myth relates, its god-emperor Nero was strumming the chords of his fiddle. We got too many little, terrible Neros in a COVID-19-plagued Dhaka. When the novel coronavirus calamity will be over, they will be remembered for their passionate attachment to the business of inflating bills, falsifying lists and misappropriating resources meant for the most vulnerable section of the society.
The corruption bonanza is precisely the usual stock in trade for the unscrupulous sections in our predatory capitalist structure. In 2019, the Anti-Corruption Commission itself identified a number of factors driving the health sector corruption but there is no evidence that the report’s recommendations could bring about any transformative change in the sector.
— The risk-benefit assessment is the prime factor, if we assume that the corrupt nexus is acting on the basis of rational choices. In a system characterised by weak governance, often benefits are privatised and losses are public. The corrupt nexus might be anticipating that if they could make extra money, they could appropriate the benefit, while the loss, i.e. the risk of death can be passed off to the others, the most vulnerable.
— Centralised and exclusionary patron-client structure: The ability to appropriate benefits and pass off losses to others is based on a political system strongly defined by partisan biases over considerations of rightful entitlement. The allegiance of the actors is primarily upward in a thoroughly centralized governance system, and thus whatever benefits they pass down to the public may be perceived as whatever pittance of ‘favor’ or patronage the public is good enough for. The rest can be appropriated by them since they see their own position and rank in the centralised patron-client structure as an extra-institutional entitlement — validated by political affiliation and so on. Crooks may even be seen justifying their rent-seeking actions and abuse of power with reference to the risks and sacrifices they have made for the sake of preserving this centralised and exclusionary patron-client structure.
— A narrow horizon of action: The administrative and political personnel who engage in corruption may not have an interest or incentive in the greater good. They may lack the imagination and motivation to engage in actions that could both benefit the community and fortify their own social and institutional credentials. Innovative solutions with regard to institutional coordination, use of technology and knowledge are required for handling a situation like this, but that requires a larger horizon of action for public officials.
— Conflicting value systems: Social values are more often than not narrowly centered on personal and familial success. Social status in the immediate social circle is chiefly defined by pecuniary riches. Powerful self-maximising socio-political networks mainly judge the merit of an action not in terms of values of impartial and rule-bound procedural and substantive justice, but in terms of direct gains to themselves and their networks.
The four reasons listed above are like scratches on the surface of a bottomless, inscrutable malaise that call for thoroughgoing analyses beyond mere moralisation or methodologically individualist psychologisation.
A stronger nation sold death and destruction to a weaker nation and has been making some profit out of it. What profit on the one side, and what inconceivable harm to the other!
— Rabindranath Tagore, ‘The Death Trade in China’
JOSÉ Saramago’s Nobel-winning novel ‘Blindness’ is based on the idea of a pandemic. The story goes like this: An invisible virus began rendering people blind. The government took the decision to quarantine the patients in a specific area. Among the quarantined blind people, one group consisted of those blind by birth. The born-blind group formed a syndicate and started monopolising relief foods meant for all. They told their blind fellows that from now on the latter would need to buy their foods. Others from the quarantined population were shocked to hear this as they had no money or assets in the quarantine. The syndicate however came up with solutions. First, they told them to give up all their valuables for getting food. After plundering the valuables, the thugs came up with a new proposal: women for food.
Blindness in this case has a pattern to it: all are blind but some are blinder than others. The pervasive syndicates in our country are blind to everything but profit. They could capitalise a pandemic, a war, probably even a zombie outbreak or the armaggeddon. There is a certain ‘denaturation’ in this money-centered conception of life. Norman O Brown demonstrated that the essence of modern economic activity involves an inability to grapple with one’s mortality. The imperative to accumulate is linked with the need to be able to give gifts to others which is twisted back into a hyperbolic notion of self-interest, as captured in the concept of homo economicus. In a post-colonial, peripheral country like Bangladesh, the system of accumulation has been warped into a process of de-linking one’s fate with others. Marx showed that in capitalism the transaction between the capitalist and the worker was not an exchange of equal value, instead the very creation of exchange value is predicated upon capture of a surplus value by the capitalist from the value produced by the worker. In the predatory capitalism that we have in our country, the predatory caste systematically delinks its fate with the ordinary populace. There may be a profound cynicism hidden in the predatory mentality: that the others, the people have no future. For all the rhetoric of boundless prosperity and breathless growth, the predators with hearts full of cynicism believe that they should untie their fate from the masses doomed to perpetual misery and eventual death. Hence, they seek to steal their way out of annihilation for the sake of their little circles defined by kinship, party, and other narrow affiliations.
Unable to live and phobic to die, our little Neros are like so many zombified undead trying to feast upon the flesh of the people that live against systemic odds.
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