• Tuesday, Nov 30, 2021
  • Last Update : 05:19 pm

OP-ED: The empathy divide

  • Published at 07:58 pm June 19th, 2020
poor coronavirus

We say we care about the livelihoods of the poor, but really, we are turning them into cannon fodder

One of the worst feelings one can ever experience is that of knowing a tragic event is about to unfold, yet being powerless to influence the outcome. Living in Dhaka and watching the calamitous spread of the coronavirus infection across the country over the last two-and-a-half months, it has been very difficult not to give in to a sense of futility and frustration. 

Over 1,300 people have died of the disease in Bangladesh, 46 on June 12 alone. As of June 12, this was the highest number of deaths from the virus in a single day so far. 3,471 people tested positive for the virus the day before, which was also a record, higher by 281 people than the previous one. 15,990 people were tested for the virus within the previous 24 hours, which makes the rate of infection within the sample around 21.71%. It has been hovering around the 20% to 24% mark since the last week of May. And in total, over 94,000 people have tested positive for the virus since testing for it started. 

What these numbers mean is this: If we extrapolate these rates for the entire population, one out of every four or five people you come across in the streets of this country may be infected by the coronavirus. And these are only the people who displayed symptoms of the disease, and had the wherewithal to get themselves tested for it, which is no mean feat in Bangladesh. 

Although information on the pandemic is ever-changing and evolving, research also tells us that anywhere from 25% to 80% of the people infected by the virus may be asymptomatic; they will not know themselves that they are carrying it. 

And even though the World Health Organization has been flip-flopping on asymptomatic transmission, Maria Van Kerkhove, the WHO’s technical lead on the Covid-19 pandemic, has recently admitted that the actual rates of asymptomatic transmission aren’t yet known, a day after saying such spread is “very rare” -- we have to assume that people who don’t display symptoms are fully capable of passing the virus on. 

Which means that, even outside of the one in every four or five people who are displaying symptoms of the disease, a massive number who are blissfully unaware of the infection are out there, fully capable of passing it on to you. 

All of which is to say, according to all available evidence, the coronavirus is everywhere in Bangladesh. Our country ranks 10th in terms of Covid-positive cases per day in the world right now; a fact which is even more alarming when you take into account the fact that we have the second lowest number of tests per day among these countries. 

Deaths from the disease have been reported in all eight of our divisions. The horse has well and truly bolted. 

How did we get here?

Wasn’t it just the other day we were circulating memes about being passed on a “dui number” (counterfeit) version of the virus by China, as opposed to the US which got the “ek number” variety? 

What happened to all that bullishness arising out of our sub-tropical climate, low median age, resilient immune systems? 

For quite a while there, the spread of the disease did seem to be relatively controlled in Bangladesh. What was the point at which it stopped being something we could poke gentle fun at and started creeping far too close for comfort? 

Did the containment of the disease fail when expatriate Bangladeshis started returning from Italy and the rest of the world in March and the plan to have them quarantined in a facility that lacked certain basic amenities was overwhelmed in the face of an explosion of anger and indignation?  

Did it fail when the godawful fiasco over the garment workers’ being called to work from various places in the country took place in early April, in bold defiance of a countrywide “general holiday,” only for the workers to be sent back because the garmentwallas decided they were not opening the factories after all? 

Did it fail when shops and places of worship were inexplicably opened up on May 10, just when the infection rate had dropped to below 10% and it seemed as if the “general holiday” was actually starting to have some effect? 

Would it have worked better if the government had decided to bite the bullet and called for a proper lockdown and ordered people to stay where they were, instead of a “general holiday” which a lot of people immediately decided was a wonderful opportunity to visit their village homes? 

Regardless of the reason, from mid-May onwards, our statistics in terms of the number of people testing positive with the virus, the percentage of tested people being found infected, and the people dying of the disease, started a steep upward climb and have not looked back since. 

The wheel of the economy

There has been a lot of debate about whether and when to open up the economy, of course. All of us are familiar by now with the term “lives vs livelihoods,” with the argument seeming to be that we have to live with a certain number of lives being lost to the disease in order to enable people to earn their livelihoods. The wheel of the economy has to move, and therefore, people have to come out of their households to work at their jobs. 

Let’s look a little more closely at this argument, however. Who are the people who absolutely have to come out of their household to work in these dire circumstances? Surely, it is the construction workers, the rickshaw-pullers, the hawkers, the street vendors -- the people who have to depend on their day’s earning to make ends meet. 

I know of a lot of private sector white-collar workers and government servants who are still working from home after the “general holiday” was withdrawn and offices were declared open on May 31. 

The entire purpose of declaring lockdowns or “general holidays” was to “flatten the curve”: Getting the number and rate of people infected with the virus to go down to an acceptable level before the economy is opened up again, along with a host of other measures to ensure that the reduction in infection is sustainable. 

Since, in our case, the curve is steeper then ever, doesn’t logic dictate that we should enforce a stricter lockdown and not rush into a forced “normalcy” with potentially disastrous consequences?

What about the day-labourers, you will say. How will they survive? How can you be so inhumane as to suggest something that essentially means the people at the bottom of the economic pyramid will starve to death?

I have seen proposals for a one-month hard lockdown with specific recommendations for this group of people. They suggest that the government should take measures to supply rice and essential medicine to 30 million families. 

They calculate the cost of this initiative to be Tk15,000 crore for one month. This may need some fine-tuning, but that figure seems to be in the ballpark of what is necessary. 

Surely, given the gravity of the situation, our exchequer can afford this? Surely it is a moral responsibility of the government? 

For us to understand the necessity of incurring this cost, we need to appreciate what the impact of not incurring it will be. Given the current situation, we seem to be headed towards a herd immunity solution, which would mean 120 million people in the country would be infected and anywhere from 1.5 to 2 million people will die. 

And the majority of these people would be -- you guessed it -- the day-labourers, the people who have no choice but to leave their households. And we also may be faced with a situation where the rest of the world would have their infection under control after a strictly enforced period of hardship, and we would remain a badly afflicted country, with incalculable economic impacts. 

In short, if we don’t take immediate measures, it will hinder rather than help the economy. 

In the US, around 13% of the population is African-American, but this group makes up 27% of the country’s coronavirus deaths. And you can rest assured that this discrepancy in numbers arises out of the relative economic disadvantage of African-Americans in that country. 

In the same manner, it is the economically disadvantaged who will die in this country in disproportionate numbers if we persist in following the path we seem to be on. We can dress up our arguments in seeming to care for the livelihoods of the poor, when, in actual fact, we are turning them into cannon fodder. 

It is this same tone-deafness that has led to the president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturer and Exporters’ Association to say poor people have an innate strength that protects them from the coronavirus. 

We have always had a deep class divide in this country. But what this crisis has revealed even more of is an empathy divide. 

Just remember, the whole world is watching. And future generations will ask us some hard questions if we conduct ourselves like a people without compassion. 

Tanvir Haider Chaudhury has spent most of his career as a banker and is now running a food and beverage company.

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