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OP-ED: Foolish citizens and smart bureaucrats

  • Published at 10:18 pm May 30th, 2020
Coronavirus People Masks
A strict lockdown would have been the best option REUTERS

Demanding voluntary compliance from people is theoretically attractive, but practically unreasonable

Many sincerely concerned people called me on May 28 after seeing a government circular that directs how as a nation we will gradually open up after May 31. They wanted to understand the thinking behind such a catastrophic policy choice. 

The decision to open up at such crossroad appeared baffling because even on May 29, Bangladesh registered its highest infections, with more than 2,500 people testing Covid-19 positive. 

To put this exponentially rising trend in context, let me evaluate some useful trends from other places to give some idea about where we stand -- illustrated in Box-1:

Box-1

Covid-19: Situation in Maharashtra


  • On March 9: The state of Maharashtra in India registered its first two Covid-19 positive cases 


  • Latest Positive Cases: 56,948; Deaths: 1,897


Covid-19: Situation in Bangladesh


  • On March 8: Bangladesh registered its first three Covid-19 positive cases.


  • Latest Number Positive Cases: 42,844; Death (Covid/Cov+Cov.Symp): 572/2,000+


Covid-19: Situation in New York


  • On March 26 --Total Number of Covid-19 Positive Cases: 44,635; Deaths: 519


  • On May 26 --Total Number of Covid-19 Positive Cases: 364,965; Deaths: 23,643



Thus, to put things into perspective, the State of New York imposed the harshest lockdown with strict social distancing measures when they were in a “similar infectious state,” but with far superior health care system. And after two painful months -- daily deaths have finally gone below the 100 mark.

So why will any nation on Earth experiment with this “quasi-gradual opening” when the trends show the worst is yet to come?

On May 26, I was on a webinar in Dhaka Tribune with other panellists, and we debated two options: (i) A curfew-styled hard lock down as propagated by me; (ii) a smart containment measure depending on smart solutions by others. 

During the debate, I did raise the point that none of our prescriptions will be embraced as the government is going for a gradual opening up. 

So why were our views rejected by the civil bureaucracy? There is a powerful political economy explanation. 

First: If they adopted a curfew styled hard locked down, the political power would have shifted from civil bureaucracy to the security apparatus, which top bureaucrats cannot accept. And, if that solution actually works out, then it is like de facto accepting the bureaucratic apparatus has failed to contain this once in a life time crisis. 

Second: They did not even embrace the “smart containment” solution, because they know that they do not have the “professional capacity” to pull off a smart plan. So, why try when you know failure is certain?

Instead -- the civil bureaucracy went for a master stroke. 

They dictated that the country will gradually open with strict health guidelines. And that these guidelines should be followed by everybody -- such as employers and employees, commuters and transport owners. 

Moreover, these guidelines are heavily dependent on maintaining personal hygiene, wearing masks, maintaining social distancing while working, etc. 

Hence, now, if someone gets infected, the onus is on them. More specifically, it is the “uninformed citizen’s fault” that they did not wear the mask. It is “their fault” that they did not use public transport while maintaining social distancing. 

And so -- if half a million people die over the next six months -- then they died because they were too “rule incompliant".

Of course, in a country where people actually saw a war criminal Sayedee on the moon and were ready to die for him leaving it to citizens to save themselves is de facto surrendering to herd immunity. But from the point of view of civil bureaucracy, this was the best option, which came with minimum accountability.

Of course, there is still time for two to three weeks of very hard lockdown that comes at a very low economic cost due to the Eid holidays, but it is unlikely that such policy correction will happen, as it will shift the onus of responsibility from the “foolish citizens” to the “smart bureaucrats.”

Course, any rational person understands that people cannot be held responsible for risks that are exponential in nature, involuntary, and uncontrollable. And demanding voluntary compliance through behavioural changes from citizens over the next two months is theoretically attractive, but practically unreasonable -- because such behavioural change requires time and long exposure to awareness campaigns. 

Only academics and bureaucrats -- sitting in their ivory towers with four layers of sanitization protocols -- can expect and prescribe that a local bus in Bhola will only allow passengers if they were a mask. 

Unfortunately, that is not the reality of Bangladesh, and so a meaningful strict lockdown could have been the only real option.

But the smart bureaucrats are smart enough to know that the only way one can avoid being blamed is to shift the responsibility to the most unorganized and helpless group in this country -- which in this case, are the citizens.  

Dr Ashikur Rahman is a Senior Economist at the Policy Research Institute of Bangladesh (PRI). He can be reached at [email protected]

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