Dealing with Covid-19 (Coronavirus) requires a rapid response to and a clear plan for an ever-changing and volatile situation based on honesty, humility, co-operation, science, information collection and dissemination, transparency, strong institutions and trust. This does not bode well for the many opaque, arrogant, ethno-nationalist governments of today which are masters of disinformation, superstition and lies, and have dismantled institutions and dismissed science in their single-minded pursuit of authoritarianism. It is as imperfect a contest as can be. Public panic must be avoided in such situations, yet the captains of these ships staring at the eye of the storm have made chaos their business. To be clear, Covid-19 is a serious global pandemic that spreads exponentially and, as yet, has no vaccine, that cannot be prayed or willed away by the sheer force of cultish leaders. It needs to be encountered. For the people of Bangladesh, this means equipping themselves with certain uncomfortable truths, so that they may be overcome.
Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth centenary celebration, not Covid-19, was the plan for 2020. The current attitude of the government to the former provides a helpful summary of the challenges Bangladeshis face in dealing with the latter. The first confirmed cases provided a convenient reason for cancelling the visit of Narendra Modi — the chief guest at the ceremony on March 17th 2020, the centre-piece of year-long plans for the birth centenary — in the wake of protests against his bigotry. If that was to be taken as the first precautionary step in a commendable urgent response, it proved to be a false dawn.
In announcing the government’s arguably unlawful policy of preventing Bangladeshis, for an extended period of time, from returning home, the foreign minister cited a lack of resources. Yet, the government’s efforts and resources have been directed almost exclusively to the Mujib anniversary celebrations. While it is true that there is a shortfall of resources in Bangladesh at the best of times, it is the birth centenary’s position as, by some margin, the first among many priorities which should be blamed for any supposed lack of resources available to bring Bangladeshi citizens home. If a government has the ability to plan and execute extravagant celebrations, it ought to have the wherewithal for a basic, human response to a serious health crisis.
When the government fails to provide essential public services along with credible and accurate information, the citizens look elsewhere, compounding the pre-existing structural problems. Social media influencers — self-proclaimed experts on every conceivable topic who speak without knowing or thinking — are the twenty-first century witch-doctors who are amongst the first to step into the vacuum. A loosely-regulated pharmaceutical industry with close ties to the government will not be far behind. A public healthcare system that has been neglected by successive governments for decades will be supplemented by a predatory private healthcare system whose quality is not commensurate with the extortionate prices. A public education system that has prostrated before Islamists will peddle superstition over science to a population that cannot tell the difference. Know-all mullahs who have been made socio-political lords will speak when they should not. Censored scientific and medical experts in a country where science and medicine, too, have been politicised and compromised, will either not dare to speak or not be heard. A muzzled media will be unable to scrutinise or give the people a voice, continuing to churn out government propaganda. Coming full circle, at that point, the citizens will turn to social media in search of trust.
Covid-19 is exposing the glaring deficiencies of Bangladesh’s capitalistic and classist society. Caring for the sick and the elderly is a familial — not state — responsibility. Those who have the most, avail themselves of the best care, putting others at risk if necessary, while those who need the most will not get any care. The upper and upper-middle classes will self-isolate by working from palatial homes — a practice that is already prevalent amongst these elites in normal times — while the lower classes will be herded together and made to work in the factories and on the streets if they wish to get paid, to be able to afford their square foot of slum.
The urban elites wish to remain safe, hence the exploited expatriates whose remittances from indentured servitude finance Dhaka’s extravagances, are unlawfully prevented from returning home, incurring costs they cannot afford in countries that abuse them. The elites, with their foreign passports, residencies and long-term visas, will opt out of the travel ban when they wish to come home, for nothing is mandatory for them. The convenience of the few will inconvenience the many, and if anyone takes issue with that, they will be silenced for being anti-state and spreading rumours.
Covid-19 requires a collective social response, but individualism and opportunism are so deeply entrenched in Bangladesh’s capitalist society that those with the resources, with control over the resources, will never share, will never think of anyone other than themselves. Bangladesh can be equipped to deal with Covid-19, but this Bangladesh is not.●
Ikhtisad Ahmed (@ikhtisad) is a Stockholm-based writer focusing on sociopolitical issues in his fiction, nonfiction and poetry.