A year in, Bangladesh seems to have learned very little about dealing with Covid-19
A couple of days ago, the phone rang from an old friend in the UK. He had heard that I had become badly infected by Covid-19 and wanted an update about the fight or battle I was having.
He asked me: “How come the UK has put Bangladesh on the 'red list' now? I don’t understand as your death numbers are low.” He added that with less than 10,000 deaths in a population of 170 million, Bangladesh is not in a bad situation at all. I pointed out that the positivity rate was shooting up and that was a very serious concern.
Anger about Covid
My friend’s questions made me think and in the process I have, indeed, become very, very angry. Nearly one year ago, I wrote the following in these columns:
“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 unforgivable 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.
“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 himself 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!'”
No actions taken
A year ago, in Bangladesh, there were shortages of Covid-19 beds, ICU beds, and oxygen. Today we are hearing the same. Very angrily I ask: What have the authorities been doing for the last one year? The answer is nothing at all or very little.
We have been told that 71% of the infections from last March last year have been in the Dhaka and Chittagong areas. Has anything special been done in those areas?
What have the municipal corporations been doing, why have councilors not been at the forefront to ensure that people are following guidelines? Except for a few handfuls of police or RAB starring in photo opportunities, nothing has been done, either to educate or enforce.
Here, in Banani, where I have lived for the last 23 years, no supervision has been visible at all. There is, for instance, a Management Committee of the Banani covered market that has held recent elections. They could have organized the enforcement of mask wearing, social distancing but they have done nothing except to ask the shops to put notices “NO MASK, NO SERVICE.”
If eminent citizen committees existed, and had any teeth or courage at all, they could have taken the municipal corporations or the Ministry of Health to court, charging them with dereliction of duty and causing the death of citizens. Why am I so angry? The situation is scandalous and nobody seems to care.
In the last month there has been an increase in the number of infections and deaths. I saw a report that a minister has blamed the “complacency” and lack of action on the people.
I beg to differ most strongly. The lack of action has been with the government authorities right across the board, across all ministries and across all divisions and districts. For the last one year, it appears that they have been sitting on their hands, hoping, like former President Trump, that the virus will go away. Not lack of cooperation, it has been a total absence of cooperation.
In addition, the situation with the continuous closure of educational institutions is, in my opinion, both scandalous and criminal. What have the educational authorities been doing up and down the country for the last one year? Have they made sure that the correct number of toilets, water supplies, and wash basins have been installed in all educational establishments?
Thousands of schools, particularly in rural areas, could have been running safely in the open air, under trees, for the last six months. The children could have been taught about the Covid-19 virus and how to handle it and they could have been valuable child ambassadors spreading the correct messages among their families, and in their communities.
Whenever the Ministry of Education announces a further delay for reopening schools, it ends the statement with “online education will continue.” Where do the officials and ministers of the Ministry of Education live? Are they in the real world? Do they have their feet on the ground?
It is only the children of richer families that have enough smartphones or tabs to access online education and so this is another way to make the gap between the rich and the poor even greater than it is now, but nobody seems to care. During a very serious epidemic such as Covid-19 educational institutions should always be the last institutions to close and the first to open.
As I said, I am extremely angry and very sad indeed because good sense, it seems, has been thrown out as garbage. All I know is that Bangladesh is better than this.
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.