Reopening will only work if people continue to wear masks and keep a safe distance
When family and friends abroad ask me how things are going in Bangladesh as far as Covid-19 is concerned, I am not sure what to say -- “organized chaos” or “disorganized chaos.”
Despite very clear and sensible guidelines laid down from time to time by the government, there has been a serious and unforgiveable lack of coordination between ministries, departments, divisions, and districts. In addition, many people have a “don’t care” attitude and do not follow “social distancing” at all.
So, I tell those who enquire that Bangladesh will either be very lucky or there is a disaster waiting to happen.
As a result of this lack of coordination, we have seen crowds of garment and other workers rush to the villages before the transport shutdown at the end of March, and then, in early, April garment workers came back to their places of work under the threat of losing their jobs.
Workers had to pay exorbitant amounts to come to places like Dhaka, Savar, and Gazipur, packed like sardines in unhygienic trucks. When I expressed my anger at what was happening, I was told: “You see, Julian Bhai, there are many millionaire owners who need to make sure their businesses somehow survive. It matters little if some workers die. The businessmen, in a blaze of publicity, will hand over some lakhs of taka to each family.”
“It is not a big deal, losing these workers will be nothing. On the other hand, if millions of people starve, it will be a nightmare.”
Having experienced famines in India 50 years ago, hunger and death in the 1971 refugee camps in West Bengal and having worked with “monga eradication” programs in the northwest of Bangladesh, I join many others who do not want to witness that level of starvation again.
Every few days, I walk to Banani grocery shops for necessities, and I see that the number of beggars has steadily increased, each group marking out their “territory” and sometimes clashing with each other violently.
It is sad to read in a paper today that the chief urban planner of Dhaka North said that they can meet only 40% of the demand for relief supplies. This is sheer mismanagement and incompetence.
Another aspect of gross and inhuman mismanagement is that I have been informed that those individuals who are receiving any social safety net allowances are not eligible to receive a ration card to enable them to purchase OMS rice at Tk10 per kg.
It follows, for instance, that those who are receiving an Old Age Allowance of Tk500 per month or someone who is receiving a disability allowance of Tk750 are not able to purchase rice at Tk10. This should be changed immediately, because receiving either Tk500 or Tk750 a month does not make that person rich.
Over the past nearly two months, there have been a number of arrests of elected local officials caught stealing relief supplies. I had thought that these well-publicized arrests might have deterred others from stealing relief supplies, but sadly it goes on.
What is also particularly horrifying to note is that there are reports in the media that journalists who are reporting on cases of theft of relief supplies are themselves being arrested -- allegedly sometimes without any arrest warrant -- for criticizing or accusing local political leaders.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has repeatedly issued stern warnings against corruption. At this time of a global crisis facing humanity, can we hope that the theft of relief supplies will not take place? In any case, stealing food supplies destined for the poor and hungry should, in my opinion, be considered as attempted murder.
Although many people are suffering to a great degree, there are some positive aspects to the lockdown. It seems to be much cleaner everywhere, and the air to breathe is certainly much better. In addition, there are many community organizations that have organized to provide meals and relief supplies to many.
Also, although it has been reported that some garment factories have not even paid the March salaries, there are some who have adopted strict hygiene measures, employed doctors, and even arranged to bring wholesale foodstuffs from north Bangladesh to be sold at reduced prices to the workers and their families. Quite remarkable!
All over the world, politicians are having to work out how to balance lives and livelihoods.
It is very, very difficult indeed to take these kinds of decisions, but if reopening is to be done, it has to be done gradually, safely, and everyone has to follow the guidelines, particularly the physical distancing of two metres and to wear a mask when not at home.
As my doctor son in the UK, who has recovered from Covid-19 and is back at work, says: “Wear a mask and believe and act as if you are infected. The mask can protect others, but it can also protect you from becoming infected!”
Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971, and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.