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OP-ED: Dancing in the dark

  • Published at 05:35 am March 19th, 2021
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For the hallucinating world, individual countries will have some very difficult decisions to make

The world population can well be forgiven for hallucinating. The vaccines developed in super quick time overriding the usual protocols were to be the magic antidote to Covid-19. Governments diverted money in the billions in fast-tracking approvals and pre-ordering the vials. 

So much so that companies producing them not only failed in planning their capacity, there are now shortages, stockpiling, and yet only 130 or so countries have been able to begin inoculation. 

WHO is battling to make the injections available to states unable to afford it. The ugly head of doubt has arisen following the relatively small numbers of fatality in those that have been vaccinated. This adds to the fear expressed by those who have refused to take the jab. Worse is that confidence has eroded even among those that have taken it.

The hallucinations aren’t unjustified. Whereas arms sales have remained steady during everything the pandemic has thrown at us, health budgets remain way below that required. The low priority affixed to health systems is being starkly exposed. As the pandemic turns colour and hue, defying all that known science can come up with, the dire shortage of nurses and doctors has spiralled out of control. The mental toll on the front line care-givers has been so depressive that many are seeking new vocations.

The attempts by the citizenry to survive are nothing short of Herculean. Politics, corruption, and bad governance have combined in reaching aid, assistance, and stimulus too little and late. Scientists and governments are apparently pirouetting in just trying to stay ahead in terms of protecting people and managing the economy, forget any forward planning. 

Brazil’s President Bolsonaro has changed his stance from denial to actually wearing a mask in public. Jacinda Ardern of New Zealand must come up with a new dance. And yet, there are those entrusted with shaping the new normal from behind the scenes. Snippets of that are becoming public knowledge and it sounds ominous to say the least.

The West Bengal elections are too important for Narendra Modi’s BJP to even think of discussing water-sharing with Bangladesh. India’s foreign secretary and the high commissioner to Dhaka are now proven to have been hollow in their assurances that border-killings and water discussions will feature during the Hasina-Modi talks. 

All such can now be dispensed with, as was clear in Foreign Minister of India M Jaishankar’s statement that there is a crime that leads to the killings -- that must be addressed. Rhetorically perhaps, he could have made the suggestion as to what and why? Perhaps too, he could have enlightened us why the previously agreed non-lethal bullets aren’t being used. Perhaps he could have informed India’s plans to deal jointly with Bangladesh, the border syndication that allures people to crime. 

Geo-politics won’t be a moot point, therefore no welcome news on the Rohingya issue either. That leaves Bangladesh on her own in extricating herself from a sticky web of others’ creation. Our Foreign Minister Dr Momen was all smiles, rueful or not, in saying that the very fact that Mr Modi will be here for the Mujib centenary and 50th independence anniversary is an achievement of great import. 

A nation based on democracy must now negotiate with an illegal one. It isn’t much different to what Antony Blinken, the new US secretary of state, will be doing during his first overseas visits to South Korea and Japan. That democracy will follow a very different route in the future is becoming all the more clear. States in the US are pushing through legislation tightening rules of voting, absentee ballots, and mail-in voting-with an eye towards next year and indeed, four years down the line. The UK will, at a point, talk of re-drawing the constituency lines to balance their first-past-the-post system. There isn’t much being hidden about President Biden’s administration’s view that China is the “enemy.” 

The Quad Summit involving the US, Japan, Australia, and India didn’t happen by chance prior to these visits. If the inability of Dr Momen to meet Blinken wasn’t a message enough, the Quad meeting was. Former President Trump had essentially given a free-hand to India in its dealings with Bangladesh. It would now appear that Biden will continue down that route. Blinken has warned China against “coercion.” 

Whether this covered the Indo-China border skirmishes isn’t clear. This is the same Blinken that said “China” and not “Russia” was the greater threat. In 2016, it required Trump to bin his own intelligence report of Russia’s attempts to influence the US presidential elections. Four years on, the accusations have emerged again, this time with Iran an equally guilty party. Russia was “pro-Trump,” Iran “pro-Biden.” 

All these are leading towards some form of a summit akin to but different from the Bretton Woods meeting towards the end of World War II. The intent and purpose is the same though. Where will the world’s economic clout lie? There are some indications of the answer. China’s next five-year plan is based on increasing domestic consumption, becoming self-sufficient in technology, and modest increases in defense.

The US is focusing on larger defense spending and a greater domestic spending. Hard on the heels of the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus comes a proposed $2 trillion plan for infrastructure. It sounds like good news, except that it plunges the country into greater debt. Where does the rest of the world fit in? Africa and Asia are where the opportunities lie, but who are the kings, queens, and pawns on the list isn’t clear. For the hallucinating world, individual countries will have some very difficult decisions to make. These are far more difficult in democracies. Bangladesh has taken one. Using foreign exchange reserves for loans to infrastructure development. She too, will have to cut corners somewhere.

Mahmudur Rahman is a writer, columnist, broadcaster, and communications specialist.

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