Why the government alone cannot tackle coronavirus effectively
A functioning democracy, where the ruling party is tolerant of the opposition parties and critics, not only establishes justice, ensures domestic tranquility, and promotes the general welfare, but also brings the whole nation together when faced with major challenges.
Bangladesh was under a so-called democracy over the last 10 years, where almost all the decisions were made by the prime minister. Junior political party leaders were chosen for key ministerial positions -- these leaders were not empowered to challenge the PM’s approaches and ideas when needed. Ministers and government party leaders frequently blame the opposition party and critics for everything that goes wrong.
The ruling party also acted as an authoritative body in both domestic and international affairs -- not engaging with the opposition parties and critics to solve any domestic issue, and only engaging with one particular country on foreign subjects. Key government positions have been primarily filled up by party supporters.
While this policy has saved the government until now, the same policy is now the biggest reason why the country is so ill-prepared to handle a major crisis like Covid-19.
So now, it is not surprising that even in these dire times when no one is safe from this virus, most of the relief funds and foods are getting gobbled up by the government party leaders. It is not surprising that when they are needed the most to help people and front line soldiers, government leaders, ministers, and mayors are hiding and thinking that the enormous wealth that they have generated over the last 10 years will ensure that they receive the best care if affected by the virus and potential famine.
It is not surprising that the government did not react until mid-March and some ministers uttered all nonsensical arguments initially. It is not surprising that the government has not displayed competency against this outbreak -- no plan to test millions of people; no plan to treat hundreds of thousands of people, if infected; no effective plan to save the poor and the middle class from unemployment and hunger; and no effective plan to ensure the continuity of the supply chain to produce agricultural products and prevent potential famine.
By no means is this to suggest that the current opposition party would have done any better, no one has forgotten the horror people perceived under the previous governments. But the current ruling party, under whose leadership the Liberation War was fought, and where millions of people sacrificed their lives in the hope that their future generations could experience freedom and better lives, was expected to do more.
Let us examine the areas in which the country potentially could get challenged during this crisis:
a) Millions of people getting infected with the virus, and hundreds of thousands dying without treatment, creating chaos in the country
b) Due to a lack of testing and proper protective equipment, a significant percentage of the health care workers and front line soldiers getting infected with the virus and working as “carriers,” resulting in a continuous spread of the virus and a severe shortage of medical staff
c) Hundreds of garment factories shutting down in the long run due to overall slowdown of the global demand and laying off of millions of workers
d) Hundreds of thousands of small businesses shutting down due to the continuous spread of the virus and a lack of demand resulting in unemployment, poverty, and starvation
e) Hundreds of thousands of people living abroad who have returned to the country potentially not being able to go back, negatively impacting the foreign remittance flow
f) Millions of workers who live abroad could be under long-term financial hardship and will send significantly less money back home
g) Severe food price inflation driven by global stimulus initiatives, increased demand, supply shortage, and trade restrictions
h) Severe food shortage due to breakage in the domestic supply chain and labour shortage
i) The country not having “herd” immunity until 2021 or worse, even 2022, because of the unavailability of a vaccine and a lack of coordinated policies
j) Localized and/or countrywide famine resulting in more people suffering/dying from starvation than the virus
While in the 21st century it could be difficult to conceive that a country like Bangladesh, which has seen 6%+ GDP growth in the last 10 years, could experience a famine, economists agree that if most of the aforementioned things pan out, the country will have severe food shortages. Whether the food shortages result in a famine will depend on the policies the government implements today.
Although decades of bad governing policies and corruption cannot be overcome in the short term, if the government, private sector, and general public work toward a common goal and strive together, the country may have enough recourses to save lives from Covid-19 as well as hunger.
For that to happen though, the government should immediately form a national council which will devise and coordinate health and economic initiatives to combat this crisis over the next two years.
This national council should include all stakeholders, including opposition and business leaders, medical experts, economists, and representatives of the general public. While this sounds simple, the only way this would work is if the prime minister is willing to let experts develop plans and execute them during this critical time in history.
Sharif Amin is a Credit Risk Vice President at JP Morgan Chase.