• Friday, Jul 10, 2020
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A national response to a national crisis

  • Published at 07:45 pm May 7th, 2020
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An unprecedented crisis / MD MANIK

The whole nation needs to be mobilized and given a sense of purpose and participation in fighting the pandemic

Living under the threat of Covid-19 the last two months reminded me of another uncertain time in my life -- the 1971 National Liberation War. But, in 1971, the enemy was visible and we were more certain, united, and proactive about our course of action. The present situation is more uncertain. The enemy is not visible and we are not united and sure about what needs to be done.

The unfolding tragedies in China, Italy, Spain, the UK and the US have spread a sense of shock and fear and we are becoming pessimistic about our future prospects, thinking that, if rich countries cannot cope with Covid-19, then what chances do we -- resource poor countries -- have in tackling this?

But we should remind ourselves that we do have examples from less resourceful countries such as Vietnam and regions such as Kerala who have managed the pandemic much better. They were quick to recognize the looming disaster, took early and effective steps in lockdown, testing, contact tracing, isolation and treatment, delivery to the needy, and effective coordination among all sectors and stakeholders. 

They focused on early and effective implementation of prevention strategies so that the health care system does not get overwhelmed.

Where we faltered

We were late but we did announce a variety of measures following WHO guidelines but our implementation has been weak and, hence, the measures did not produce the desired outcomes. The weaknesses of our governance system have become all too apparent.

The lack of coordination between different government agencies, between the government and private sector, and premature announcement of certain actions without working out implementation details or explanation about the scientific basis for such actions have created confusion and anxiety. 

Some initiatives have come forward from the private sector, NGOs, civil society groups, and individuals  in various fronts -- relief, testing, hospital, ventilators, PPE, masks, awareness raising, etc -- but it is not at all clear how all of these efforts will be coordinated and directed in a systematic way for optimal utilization. 

The media has played an excellent role in keeping the public informed, investigating problems, showcasing success stories, and highlighting the experiences of other countries. 

But the media faces financial constraints and journalists face risk of infection and also worry about the risk of prosecution under the Digital Security Act.  

What we need to do

We need to draw lessons from our experiences of the last two months as to what works and what does not and avoid repeating the same mistakes. We do not have that much time in hand to take corrective and additional actions as the pandemic is a fast-moving phenomenon. 

Some countries, who took early and effective steps in prevention, are now planning to relax lockdown and open up gradually. Others, who were badly affected but now feel more confident that they have a grip on the situation, may also join in the near future. 

The tip of the iceberg

But our data on Covid-19 indicates that we may be just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg. Because of slow and low levels of testing, our health professionals are not sure when we can expect any flattening or downward trend of the curve and when they can recommend a lifting of lockdown on the basis of scientific results.

For a variety of reasons, we could not enforce strict stay-at-home rules, nor could we significantly improve our capacity for testing, tracing, isolation, and treatment. After two months, the government is facing a dilemma as lockdown for a long time will be difficult to sustain for economic reasons. 

It may have to choose a path between different bad options, each carrying different kinds of risks. A good example is the decision to open the RMG and other factories. The RMG factory owners are prioritizing their risk of market loss. The workers are worried about their jobs and income loss and cannot afford to prioritize their health concerns. 

So, who will prioritize the health and safety of workers, their families, and the community at large? If factory openings lead to a massive increase in infection, then, ultimately, the state will have to take care of them. If workers start more demonstrations, then, again, the state will have to address their grievances.

State agencies, particularly law enforcement, the health sector, and relief are now under huge pressure. Police are involved in many activities beyond their normal duties -- enforcing stay-at-home orders, distributing relief, locking down affected areas, sometimes transporting patients or burying the dead. Many of them are getting infected and some have died.

Our public health facilities and their workers lack sufficient PPE and technical personnel and face a lot of risks. Again, many of them are getting infected and some have died.

The government agencies distributing relief are also under pressure. They have to distribute relief all over the country and they are facing demonstrations with complaints about corruption and misappropriation. 

We had earlier developed mechanisms for disaster management but they are inadequate to address this unprecedented pandemic. The two institutions on which we have traditionally depended for support during crisis periods -- family and community -- are also sometimes failing us due to stigma and misinformation about Covid-19.

Some families are abandoning their members and some communities are shunning their neighbours. Here, too, state agencies have to come forward for rescue.

The state has only limited capacity to respond to the myriad demands placed on it due to the coronavirus pandemic. As the government ponders the options of when, how, and in what phases to lift the lockdown, it will have to weigh the various risks -- economic, social, and political -- that go with the  different options and judge the capacity of the various state machineries to manage the risks.

It is obvious the state alone cannot provide all the necessary services, but when the state can effectively utilize the services of all the actors, government, private sector, NGOs, CSOs, and CBOs in a coordinated manner as has been done by successful cases such as Vietnam and Kerala, we will be better able to manage the pandemic. 

After all, it is a disaster facing the whole nation and the whole nation needs to be mobilized and given a sense of purpose and participation in fighting the pandemic.

Some good examples

We should remember that, though many countries face the dilemma of saving lives versus saving livelihoods, all countries have prioritized saving lives and those who have taken early comprehensive steps to save lives have been able to later address the issue of livelihoods.

We need to take various steps on an urgent basis. For example, we need to utilize community-based health workers and other volunteers for contact tracing and health messaging. We should  keep in mind that we have been warned that Covid-19 may not go away soon and, even if it becomes less severe in a few months, it may return in the winter with more severity. 

So, we cannot let our guard down. We may have to live and work in a fundamentally different way for months if not years before we fully understand the behaviour of the virus or find a vaccine.

Though the trajectory of Covid-19 is uncertain up to now, it has taken the heaviest tolls on the vulnerable groups -- the elderly, the sick, the migrants, and the poor. 

The new way of living -- social distancing and digital work -- is exacerbating the rich-poor divide within nations and between nations. Resource-poor countries are worried that they will be disadvantaged in the post-Covid world where competition in the global market will be more intense.

Some of the Asian countries which have successfully tackled the pandemic -- China, South Korea, Vietnam -- have become global role models for devising their own creative strategies fast. Given our resource constraints, we will also have to be more creative in finding our own solutions and fighting the pandemic today and take action to ensure better health and wellbeing of our people for tomorrow. 

Rounaq Jahan is a Bangladeshi political scientist and author.

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