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OP-ED: Lessons from a horrible year

  • Published at 02:14 am December 28th, 2020
covid-19 masks
File photo of people wearing masks in a crowd to curb the spread of Covid-19 Md Manik/Dhaka Tribune

2020 has been extremely difficult -- but is there hope for the future?

It’s a common human habit to look at the horoscope at the end or the beginning of a year for the coming times. The horoscope section blends perfectly with the languorous year-end feeling, and it’s no mystery that most of us want to hear something optimistic.

Some want to hear about career progression, others about romantic triumphs, whereas some hope to hear of their wishes of travelling abroad coming true.

I bet when 2020 began a lot of us pored over the pages of the annual horoscopes.

While there were predictions made for all sorts of positive changes in life, not a single horoscope could predict the looming coronavirus pandemic that would paralyze the world. In fact, when I was talking to an astrologer who has a swanky office in Elephant Road, his forecast was nothing but uplifting.

From March, the lives that we knew began to unravel and, standing at the end of 2020, one can say that we are at the end of what can be termed one of the worst, most fraught years in living memory. Corona is the ultimate curse on human civilization, upending the way we live, shattering many centuries of habits.

At the end of 2020, the world is still not back to normal; masks have become part of us, shaking hands is a forgotten habit, washing hands is a priority, and social distancing is an integral part of living.

Of course, Bangladesh is far better in many ways from other countries, especially the developed ones which are currently under another bout of lockdowns. The year 2020 will be gone in a week but the memories of this horror will remain along with the lessons.

Disasters cannot be predicted

The first lesson from 2020 is that catastrophes cannot be predicted. In the beginning of 2020, the news about a mysterious disease killing people in China appeared on a small corner of the Time magazine. By March, Corona had spread to almost all regions of the world and then came the lockdowns.

The first lesson is that whether it’s clairvoyants or scientists, the far reaching impact of Corona could not be predicted. The world was caught unawares.

The futility of so much technological advancement became evident because, in the first part of 2020, there was hardly any antidote for the virus. People died in the thousands; the grim pictures of long lines of army trucks carrying bodies in Italy are etched in our minds. Large ships, even aircraft carriers, which can be deemed the ultimate example of technological excellence, lay helpless.

The best and worst of humanity

At one point, the lack of ventilators became a major issue, which triggered experiments. Consequently, young innovative minds came up with cheap solutions, using a wide variety of everyday items. As a journalist moving about a ghostly Dhaka city, what struck me was the compassionate nature of many middle-class people who went about on bikes and in cars to feed the street dogs.

Countless people from affluent backgrounds prepared food, packaged rations to hand over while students formed groups to raise money to buy essentials for the destitute.

On the other side of the spectrum, there was the tendency to make a fast buck from the disaster. False certificates became a thriving business while unscrupulous people made profit in the name of helping others.

I came across quite a few people who, initially, appeared to be totally devoted to the operation of sending food support to the helpless. However, it soon became clear that the rice they were sending was of the lowest kind. As one person I know told me: Even your dog won’t eat the products they are providing.

Syndicates sprung up to supply substandard masks. At several places, the main talk was how to get a contract out of the health department to supply sanitisers or masks.

Helping others was certainly not the objective, as the main target was to make swift profit in a time of disaster.

The lesson from this is that those who are immoral will always remain so even when there is an emergency.

Defying grim predictions of death

In March, when the country went into lockdown, relatives living in the UK expressed profound concern for Bangladesh, underlining a prediction made by certain bodies that, since countless people live in slums and in close proximity in Bangladesh, the death toll would be severe. My own uncle said that it may cross two million.

Naturally, there was a sense of alarm. However, at the end of 2020, we find that hardly anyone died in the slums or from within the social class which depends on physical labour to earn a livelihood. In fact, the concentration of corona was mainly around Dhaka district and several major towns while most of the rural parts remained untouched.

While Dhaka was in lockdown, people in Bogra or Pabna were spending a leisurely time. There was a prediction that since people living in slums use communal toilets and live in small spaces, there may be clusters of coronavirus in such settlements. In reality, people living in shanty towns are more at risk of fire from short circuits than death from the virus.

The lesson learned is that people who are physically active have less chance of getting the virus, at least in the virulent form.

A friend of mine gave me a rather metaphysical explanation: In this country, there are countless people who are extremely religious and virtuous. Such piety is usually paid back in ways we cannot always understand. Well, I am willing to accept his logic.

The astrologer whom I talked to in the beginning of 2020 now has a prayer mat in his room. While several developed nations are back to lockdown mode, in Bangladesh, it’s business as usual.

As many say, this country has been blessed by the divine. Shall we say amen to that?

Towheed Feroze is a journalist and teaches at the University of Dhaka.

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