Business owners should have known better
The images of droves of garment workers heading towards the capital on foot were rather disconcerting. When the main mantra is social distancing, the long line of people, walking without maintaining the required distance, is contrary to the advice voiced by doctors and specialists.
The call to the workers to come to Dhaka to join work was a totally irrational move in a time when isolation is being repeatedly emphasized.
But there is another aspect to the episode -- the travails of the workers who were heading towards Dhaka on foot due to the absence of any form of transport.
Obviously, there was no thought given to the fact that to come to Dhaka, workers would have to endure hours on the road under a remorseless sun. Of course, many might have thought that walking in the sun would actually be beneficial and kill off any virus.
This move to open the factories received widespread flak on social media because, once people enter the cities before the lockdown period is over, there is always the chance of any virus to spread. With corona, ultra caution is essential and not an act of cowardice.
Also, in the city, I came across several microbuses filled with people. Though all of the passengers were wearing masks, they sat very close to one another.
How effective is the mask?
Maybe the myth about masks needs to be debunked. There is a general feeling that once we wear the mask we are totally safe and, therefore, can go about doing whatever we desire with impunity.
On my daily rounds of the city, came across several groups of masked people who were sitting very closely and talking animatedly, sipping tea. What I gathered was that they had come out with the notion that once a mask is on, 100% safety is guaranteed.
Wearing a mask is one of the preventive measures just like washing hands or using the hand sanitizer but this alone does not guarantee full safety from any bacteria.
In fact, wearing a mask for too long can also trigger other health complications. As a person with asthma, I can say that wearing masks is more like an obstruction to normal breathing.
The long line of textile workers who were heading towards the city had their masks on but the entire act had disaster written all over it. When there have been exhortations from the higher authority to practice distancing, this sort of behaviour will only create more health hazards.
Obviously, the finger is pointed at the textile factory owners, who apparently asked the workers to come back. This is indeed baffling since the country is still within a lockdown period extended till April 11.
Common sense states that there cannot be any move to come back to full-time work unless that date passes. In that light, the move by the workers to come back to Dhaka should have been stopped immediately.
The decision to open factories after April 11 came much later and, by that time, many had already crossed a long way towards the city.
On one hand, this shows a total lack of strategic planning and on the other, indicates to callous spur of the moment decisions with total disregard for realities on the ground.
So far, the infection rate in Bangladesh is low but the number of testing has also been small. Not trying to be an alarmist but there may be people with the coronavirus symptoms who are moving about.
We must keep in mind, the virus takes both a mild and a severe form, the former infecting the British PM, who is working from his official residence. In early March, British health minister Nadine Dorries was also diagnosed with Covid-19 and then after a few weeks recovered from it.
So if someone is showing signs of a milder form then the best course of action is to remain at home but once people are allowed to move about freely, there is always the possibility of contagion.
Walking in the sun for hours in sweaty clothes may also trigger a common cold, a fever, and a blocked nose. Would such a person be allowed to report for duty or would a co-worker feel comfortable working with a person with such symptoms?
A little bit of common sense and empathy
Reportedly, many garment workers have not been paid their salaries for March which also spurred the move towards the city. With so much call for compassion plus generosity, the salaries could have been sent to the workers using the countless mobile-based money transfer systems.
In fact, with such a health emergency, the factory owners should declare a one-month advance salary to be paid to the workers for the month of April so the workers would be safe for Ramadan. This way, the risks would have been low and an act of benevolence committed.
This would have meant a financial loss for factory owners but then, for decades, the textile owners have made a steady profit and the one-month salary for workers would certainly not see them lose their social standing or put a dent on their affluent lifestyle.
Common sense is not so common, as we see by actions all around us. Once the lockdown is lifted, the academic institutions cannot be allowed to open under any circumstances because that would mean an influx of lakhs of young people who left the city for their respective villages.
To ensure a minimum spread of the virus, the government needs to chalk out a strategic plan that would cover the whole month of Ramadan plus the Eid holidays.
Realistically speaking, closure of all schools, colleges, and universities is essential and this should be integrated with the Eid holidays for maximum safety.
In the end, there will be a financial loss for many institutions but perhaps instead of going berserk over fall in earnings, the possibility of long-term health hazards needs to be kept in mind.
As for business people, it’s time they use a little empathy and logic. Sometimes, you can’t have your cake and eat it too.
Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.