Do workers have a say in the matter, or is it an illusion of choice?
As of April 27, 2020, the Covid-19 toll in Bangladesh, according to worldometer stats, seems pretty bleak. The total infected number is close to 6,000 -- 108 people were cured, but 127 lost their lives. The rate of fatality is alarming in Bangladesh. Covid-19 quickly escalated to the pandemic level in countries like China, Italy, Spain, Iran, the UK, and the US.
Covid-19 has brought a global superpower like the US to its knees. British Marxist economic geographer and distinguished professor of anthropology, David Harvey argues that the domination of neoliberal socio-economic paradigm in Europe, North America, and South America did not prepare their citizens to face a global health crisis like Covid-19 at all.
I would argue that it is also applicable to South Asia, especially Bangladesh. The Western measures to fight and contain Covid-19 are considered universal by many. However, it can be significantly harder to apply in a country like Bangladesh because of its socio-economic subjectivities.
People have been instructed to stay home and maintain social distancing at the state level. I would argue that this does not take into consideration our socio-economic and cultural realities.
Most people in Bangladesh are dreading the fatal Covid-19 infection for these two reasons:
First: The government declared a countrywide holiday for several phases till May 5. This is not exactly following the World Health Organization’s (WHO) locked-down model. The measure in Bangladesh was rather mild as the government did not want the pandemic to cripple the economy.
To avoid this economic crisis, the Bangladesh government announced a stimulus package of Tk5000 crore (roughly $600 million) for garment factory owners. The stimulus package, however, did not explicitly mention the workers’ incentive.
Workers around the country rushed to their villages during this state declared break. Pictures of millions of workers going to their villages went viral on social media platforms for not following the precautionary measures to avoid the Covid-19 infection. And maintaining social distance, in this case, was impossible.
The whole country, understandably, went into panic mode.
Second: Garment factory owners asked workers to get back to work on April 5, which was a blatant violation of health security. Millions of men and women took to the street to return to Dhaka and save their jobs. Many workers had to make their way back to Dhaka when public transport was shut down. Workers walked for hundreds of kilometres under the burning sun.
How could the factory owners possibly justify their decision to ask the workers to rejoin their work amid this pandemic?
Coronavirus travels incredibly fast through their human carriers. The infection rate seems pretty negligible in Bangladesh due to a painful shortage of testing facilities. Genetic testing, by far, provides the most reliable result. Insufficient reliable testing can give us the inaccurate impression that we are not infected.
Individuals can carry coronavirus without showing any visible symptoms for days. As a result, we are very likely to fall into the trap of unexamined optimism. Perhaps this false optimism is convincing the factory owners and policy-makers of Bangladesh to keep the factories open. The workers, of course, are compelled to return to their work for their financial survival.
In comparison, countries with less aggressive neoliberal economic paradigms like China, South Korea, Taiwan, and Singapore are relatively more successful in fighting and containing Covid-19 infections due to their robust health care facilities. China successfully contained the Covid-19 spread from infecting many parts of China, like the western and southern areas.
We did not learn from the mistakes of other countries with the Covid-19 crisis. We were not able to contain the Bangladeshi migrants returning from Italy. On top of that, we have failed colossally to limit internal movement within the country once they did return from abroad. This has created paralyzing panic among most Bangladeshis.
We must not forget that the Covid-19 spread doesn’t discriminate between socio-economic classes. Besides, many Bangladeshis are falling victim to baseless myths to remain safe from Covid-19.
The bitter truth, however, is how long the people will be able to keep themselves inside their homes. The prime minister of Bangladesh has once again extended the lockdown period for all the right reasons.
But the fact of the matter is that staying home is not a feasible option for hardworking workers such as garment workers, most of whom are women. Staying home is a privilege only a group with a specific socio-economic location can afford.
I am a professor, and I can afford the privilege of staying home. My home is my office. I draw my salary from the ATM, and I can continue writing pedantic Facebook posts. Many others like me can do the same. But this is not the case for most of the Bangladeshi wage earners.
The neoliberal economic paradigm commodifies social commitment by creating PR measures like corporate social responsibility (CSR). Social media feeds are flooding with companies coming forward to help the impacted poor people. The pictures of rich people caring about the poor are decorating social media walls with synthetic compassion.
I do appreciate these kind gestures of people, and I think it is extremely needed in this day and age when the world is suffering from moral bankruptcy. But the critical question remains unanswered: Is that sustainable?
Corporatized compassion for the poor is a double-edged sword. The corporate support package is a measure to make sure the company profit stream does not discontinue or falter temporarily. The workers either have to work at the factory and get the “corporate support gift” to fight Covid-19.
Or they will have to starve in their homes should they choose not to go to work.
I am not sure how that is even a choice. Although, the illusion of choice for the workers (and have-nots) is a well-known sleight of hand in capitalist ventures. This brings us to the bitter truth: Who deserves the opportunity to stay home and be safe, and who doesn’t? Hence, the existing social inequality comes crying out loud.
The government needs to take immediate steps to address this crisis. First, health care is essential, but it is not the be-all and end-all. It is essential to wash your hands frequently and use masks. But epidemic control is not the only solution.
The virus is all around us; they are inside us. We must provide test kits for all; we must identify the actual numbers of infected people and provide much needed medical support to the impacted communities.
We must do so by going around the aggressive neoliberal economic paradigm.
Second, locking down is not the only solution. The government should provide direct financial help to low income/marginalized people, and not just hand out stimulus packages to the factory owners.
The private sector, especially NGOs, has to come forward. We don’t have any alternative but to go into a collective quarantine like Wuhan to fight this pandemic.
Zahir Ahmed is Professor, Department of Anthropology, Jahangirnagar University, and a member of the Anthropology and the Proliferation of Border and Security Walls Task Force (APBWTF) of the American Anthropological Association. He can be reached at [email protected]