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OP-ED: From the epidemic of 1971 to the pandemic of 2021

  • Published at 03:21 am July 30th, 2021
Lockdown Motijheel
MEHEDI HASSAN/DHAKA TRIBUNE

My mind bounces across 50 years

At one time I thought that the year 2021 would see me writing about and talking about my memories of 1971, the desperate days in the Oxfam supported refugee camps of Tripura, Assam, Meghalaya, and West Bengal, and also, and more importantly, the excitement of the birth of a new country, Bangladesh.

Indeed, I find myself writing not only about the cholera epidemic of 1971, but also everything around the Covid pandemic of 2020-21. 

On July 29, 1971 I received in Calcutta a telegram from Oxfam-America confirming that Senator Edward Kennedy, Dale De Haan, and Jerry Tinker representing the US Senate’s Overseas Refugees’ Sub-Committee, were arriving in Calcutta on August 1, and had been briefed about Oxfam’s work in the refugee camps. 

Senator Kennedy’s team in fact arrived some days later than planned, and during their visit went to some of the refugee camps in Tripura and the northern part of West Bengal. After their field visits, they spent a few days in Delhi for discussions with Indian government officials including the prime minister, Indira Gandhi. 

Senator Kennedy said during his stay in Delhi that the refugee problem was “perhaps the greatest human tragedy of our times.” Before Senator Kennedy left Delhi, he said that he had already opposed American arms supplies to Pakistan, and went on: “I will make every effort in the United States Senate not only to halt arms supplies in the pipeline but also those in the future and also to halt all economic aid.” 

Senator Kennedy also said: “I think that the only crime Mujib is guilty of is winning an election. The question of the trial being secret is an outrage to every concept of international law.”

Much later, Senator Kennedy wrote an article for the Oxfam publication “Testimony of Sixty” in which he said: “In India, I visited refugee areas along the entire border of East Bengal to the Jalpaiguri and Darjeeling districts in the north to Agartala in the state of Tripura in the east. 

"I listened to scores of refugees as they crowded into camps, struggling to survive. Their faces and their stories etch a saga of shame which should overwhelm the moral sensitivities of people throughout the world. 

“I found that conditions varied widely from one refugee camp to another. But many defy description. Those refugees who suffer most from the congestion, the lack of adequate supplies, and the frightful conditions of sanitation are the very young -- the children under five --and the very old. 

“Many of these infants and aged already have died. And it is possible to identify those who will be dead within hours, or whose sufferings will surely end in a matter of days. 

“The very young and very old were exhausted from many days and nights in flight. They told stories of atrocities, of slaughter, of looting and burning, of harassment and abuse by West Pakistani soldiers, and collaborators. Many children were dying along the way, their parents pleading and begging for help.  

“To those of us who went out that day, the rains meant no more than a change of clothes, but to these people it meant still another night without rest, food, or shelter.”

Fast forward to 2021

As in 1971, the monsoon rains are falling and there are flooded refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar. About 1 million Rohingya refugees have been there for nearly four years, whereas the Bangladesh refugees of 1971 returned to their homes within one year. The world continues to ignore this tragedy in the same way that it did for a long time with the 1971 situation.

Bangladesh is currently and urgently trying to come to grips with the pandemic challenge of 2021. However, without a functioning welfare state and free health care for all, it is impossible to control the spread of the virus with a “strict lockdown.” Millions of Bangladeshis depend on daily, casual, or contract labour and, because they are not getting it, large numbers are falling below the poverty line once again. 

Balancing lives and livelihoods is very, very difficult, a huge headache for the government, and so the cooperation of all concerned from all walks of life is needed.

The lockdown orders severely limit the use of private cars, but today in Gulshan and Banani there were many on the road, often with only one person in the vehicle and, while I was watching at each check post, 20 to 30 cars passed without being checked. Sometimes a hand came through the car window and money changed hands. This sort of checking is a mockery, a joke. 

Perhaps those manning the check posts have not heard the speech the prime minister made on July 27 in which she said: “As you get rewarded for your good job, there’s no mercy for any misdeed. You also have to face tough punishment for that.” 

It is clear that very few people believe it is necessary to wear masks. In actual fact, wearing a mask is more to stop the virus spreading from you to someone else than preventing you becoming infected. Is it so difficult that we cannot care for others? 

Even if you have no symptoms, you might be carrying the virus, and the Delta variant can affect people of all ages, not just the old and those with other health issues. Please encourage everyone to be more serious and follow the guidelines.   

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. Julian has also been honoured with the award of the OBE for services to development in Bangladesh.

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