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OP-ED: Covid-19, communication, and the unique Bangladeshi psyche

  • Published at 03:20 am April 18th, 2021

What has made controlling Covid-19 the second time around so difficult?

As the country falls increasingly under the pervasively ominous shadow of the Covid cloud, the rates of infection and death are thrashing the previous inexplicably low records from last year.

The country is facing this second Covid-19 wave without so much as a care for the new lockdowns the government is desperately trying to impose, because of what happened the first-time round.

What happened was that nothing happened. The dreaded virus had reportedly little to no real effect on the rate of infections or deaths in Bangladesh. This was most likely because the first time around the official communication did little to argue the severity of the virus as much as it did the economic urgency for a robust GDP. One could argue that either actual death tolls were severely underreported or Bangladesh had some miracle pass over it.

Our government was able to sing its own praises of how it had handled the pandemic, protected the citizens, and ensured uninterrupted GDP growth (discounted as it might have been, but still much above what could have been predicted).

Not one strict word had really been communicated about the implications of the effects of an unchecked contagion and the criticality of social distancing and the need for enhanced hygiene for survival.

The low death tolls laid the groundwork for presumptive assumptions of Covid-19 being a) an elitist affliction for the rich (and/or corrupt), if you were among the “underserved” masses; b) an ordained test to root out non-believers in society, if you were among the “over-zealous” religiously attuned; or, c) succumb to the rampant impurities in our food and drink that had super-conditioned or steel-lined our natural immune system, if you were among the “logically rooted” or “grasping at straws” remainder.

The current rise in Covid-19 infections, however, is putting all these superfluous presumptions to the test. In all honesty it is difficult to ascertain what exactly happened to keep Covid-19 at bay in Bangladesh, but the government was quick to take credit for it.

A direct result of which, realistic communication around Covid and its dire consequences were probably downplayed.

In all likelihood, the “conditions” that deflected the ill-effects of the virus once will not duplicate itself this time around.

Reality has shown that millions have been pushed back into poverty, leaving people convinced that any precautions they had taken to the detriment of their own personal fortunes had been wasted -- because, given official accounts, Covid-19 proved nothing but a fake fire alarm.

The economy and self-preservation were what counted, and circumstances have shown that self-preservation is not about social distancing or washing hands as it is about protecting one’s income source. Self-preservation was about ensuring purchasing power and keeping the economy revving.

Bottom line, the dark clouds of increased infections is testimony to the people’s addiction to commerce -- selling and buying. The great fear (and assumed reality for some) was that being unable to stay open for business or get in a day’s work would lead directly to starvation.

The drive to stay open was enabled by an equally inept consumer base, armed with more disposable income than ever in the history of the country, and their innate need to consume. Notwithstanding the fact that none of these things would eventually matter if either party had to spend the last remaining days of their lives alone in a hospital bed (if they could find one and/or afford it), hooked to a machine that would help them breathe before it couldn’t anymore.

To be frank, this nation has mostly been about immediate gratification and constant one-upmanship as a measure of success. This is why we have so much corruption, so much inequality, and so much shallowness in our lives.

It would not be unfair to say that most people are glued to rites (publicly perceivable) rather than true purpose (non-public facing). Case in point would be countless examples of people hanging the masks around their necks or under their noses, rather than wearing it properly because doing so amounted to personal discomfort with one’s ability to breathe. What mattered was to be publicly seen to be vigilant (but only up to the point of not being inconvenienced, thus defeating the actual purpose of the masking).

If other recent examples can be believed, we live in a society where it is more treasured to be seen crowding at the Ekushey Boi Mela than actually knowing about the history of Ekushey -- this is because there is an “educated” or “cultured” image to be implied about oneself by being seen at such an event. One-upmanship in society is inexplicably married to consumption.

It is this precise affliction that has made controlling Covid-19 the second time around so difficult.

The first time the government had issued a lockdown last year, it held water because people were unsure of what was happening and were genuinely concerned. But like everything else, it was rites over purpose. We are seeing the same being repeated this time around. 

Official communication served to show that the pandemic hadn’t really taken a bite out of the masses during that exodus, so actually served only to defang any real fears. The majority looked at that communication in retrospect to find nothing else but reason to bemoan the missed consumption and business opportunities.

Popular legend arose that Covid-19 could not harm the robust Bengali physiology because of, take your pick, divine intervention, divine justice, or globally unmatched immunity. It didn’t matter which because we are shallow and don’t need to look beyond.

Reports of course say otherwise as the number of Covid-19 cases and the subsequent death toll rises by the day. Bangladesh is facing a real predicament at the moment and the people are not convinced that they need to take precautions as yet because even in the light of escalating urgency, precautions might mean losing livelihoods and standards of living, which paradoxically trumps staying alive.

Talat Kamal is a PR and communications consultant with more than 24 years of experience in corporate and media communications. He can be reached at ta[email protected]

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