This crisis will reveal just how vulnerable we are
Our minds seem to be racing away at 100km/h, 24/7. Even though we aren’t going anywhere, stuck at home.
Over two billion people on the planet are in lockdown. Revisit your New Year’s Eve resolutions, hopes, and forecasts. They seem like they belong to another era.
Outside China, no ordinary person had anticipated this dystopia. All of 13 weeks ago. While China was struggling to cope with the virus, Western mainstream media was stoking up Sinophobia. Eating bats and wild animals were the supposed cultural reasons for the pandemic.
Words such as draconian and authoritarian were easy labels to stamp on Beijing. There was little empathy for what ordinary Chinese were going through. The only concern seemed to be how to let the economic competitor get its comeuppance amid vague hopes that the virus would not travel.
We are not at war even though some leaders like to use martial language, mainly it seems to cover up their unpreparedness. We are going through historic times though.
When this is all over, we will not forget that Beijing’s incredible mobilization gave the rest of the planet invaluable time in which to get their systems in order. The rest mostly blew it.
London was savouring its supposed exit from the EU. Washington was revelling in its money-buys-all electoral circus, in between assassinating Iranian generals.
Delhi was fixated on creating mayhem between Muslim and Hindu. Modi 2.0, fresh from his billion-dollar re-election let rip. Orchestrated mob killings and lawfare to make Muslims second class citizens. Neighbours were vilified. Meanwhile, Dhaka was focused on celebrating a birthday. Along with that, all plans on celebrating the passage to a fully developed country within two decades are on hold right now.
Dreams, however beautiful, can wait. This is an emergency. And it is not clear that administrations have woken up to a new world coming soon.
The emperors have no clothes, or rather a conscience. Modi, the strongman with the self-proclaimed 54-inch chest, the once poor man of the people, with the gift of the common touch, in tune with the public, gave just four hours notice for lockdown.
Surely, even his supporters should be figuring out by now that he really is a useless leader. De-monetization was a disaster. Plunging India into sectarian near civil war was (and is) senseless. The callous treatment of poor people, along with colonial-era punishments by police, will not be forgotten. There will be a price to be paid.
Not just there but across South Asia, the recent images of millions upon millions of people clambering onto buses, boats, and trains and, worst of all, walking hundreds of kilometres to escape the cities in lockdown to return home should haunt us. We have time travelled back to 1947 and Partition.
What exactly is the masterplan in Delhi and Dhaka? Both seem to be eerily following the same road map. Send the “problem” as far away from the cities.
Self-isolation isn’t an option if one lives in a slum. OK, so they are dispatched to the villages. For how long? There is no welfare state. While the export sector gets liquid money to continue functioning, what is meant to happen to the domestic migrants going in the opposite direction, from city to village? There will be some distribution of food -- the lucky ones in the export industries should be receiving some money on their phones.
However, the daily labourers of the so-called informal economy will have to return to Dhaka and Chittagong. For one thing, the cities will cease to function otherwise. Today, one may marvel at the cleaner air and quieter streets, but as the urban economy grinds to a halt, tomorrow, the value of the slums will become all too clear.
But here’s the problem. We have seen that all emergency lockdowns start off as a two or three week period and then get extended. Bangladesh bizarrely calls it a holiday. We must expect the “vacation” to possibly last a lot longer.
After all, the health system is not geared to the urban poor, nor to the rural population. If the virus ever took hold in the cities, then it could spread like wildfire in the cramped quarters of the slums. If only the hot and humid weather could stop Covid-19 in its tracks seems to be the unspoken policy. Which only means a delay to winter.
House arrest gets people thinking
The cities are half empty. For years, the middle class have felt constrained digitally. Now it is physically under house arrest. After the initial shock and panic, scrambling for basic necessities, boredom takes over.
Then comes restlessness and eventually anger. We can see this starting to happen in states which have not managed to tackle the crisis, unlike East Asia. Confinement is not easy.
The injustice meted out to the poorer (and majority) classes will gnaw at our consciousness.
There is evidence of some of the better off organizing food distribution, providing soap and sanitizers, doing what they can as individuals. They say crises can bring out the best in people and foster community organizing and social solidarity.
It cannot, however, replace government. Nor can it a welfare state. Handouts, public or private, are vital. But they are short-term. Band-aid. The economy is rapidly withering away. A few weeks of stagnation, followed by a rebound is plausible from a macro-economic perspective. The (very) best-case scenario. It does nothing for day labourers who have little or no savings to act as a cushion.
For them a week without work and pay is an eternity. And what happens if this drags on for months?
This crisis will reveal just how vulnerable the country is. How the health system is not fit for purpose. That the informal sector, with its tens of millions of hard working people, has barely kept up. Farmers forgotten. Continuing mismanagement of the crisis will lead to the crowd becoming restive in the stands, ending up with booing the manager.
Farid Erkizia Bakht is a political analyst.