As we emerge from one of the darkest weeks in Bangladesh’s history, we will need to look back and assess not only the fatal collapse of a sub-standard building that claimed so many lives, but also our ability to respond to national crises of this magnitude. The catastrophe at Savar’s Rana Plaza will long be remembered as the worst civilian disaster in our 42 year existence, but in hindsight, it will also be accompanied by the memory of extraordinary solidarity.
For a nation that is often criticised for its civil divides, it is no small wonder that in the end, it was the immediate disaster response of the unified masses that tipped the balance between the deceased and the survivors in favour of the latter. Particularly under the current climate of political volatility, intellectual segmentation and religious finger-pointing, this sense of solidarity is a welcome reminder that in the face of adversity, there is no greater strength than the strength in numbers.
As news of the collapse broke out early Wednesday morning, little time was wasted in mobilising resources, manpower, medical supplies, food and other relief materials for the victims of the tragedy. General people, irrespective of class, creed or occupation, organised themselves to instantaneously respond to the needs of the rescue workers, the injured and those still trapped under the rubble.
Volunteer organisations, university students, corporate offices, civilians and local residents of Savar regrouped to work as makeshift disaster response mediators raising funds, purchasing supplies, creating collection points and blood banks, transporting supplies to Savar and providing on-the-ground assistance to the army, police and fire services personnel working on the rescue operation. Ground realities and requirements were constantly shared via social networking sites and as the list of priorities changed with each interval, so too did the consignments of relief.
This overlying sense of urgency for Savar victims was restricted not only to the general masses disbursing personal finances for relief but also to sales and management staff at pharmacies, hardware stores and other retail outlets who provided discounts and easy-to-handle packaging services for every consumer buying supplies for Savar.
As we near the end of the initial phase of isaster response, it is important to realise that the work is far from over. Continued support will be required for the long-term treatment of the seriously injured, for the rehabilitation of workers who no longer have jobs to return to and most importantly, for the well-being of families that have lost their primary breadwinners. And in moving forward, we can only hope that the unfailing solidarity of the past week extends not only to the rehabilitation of Savar victims, but also to broader issues such as ensuring correct construction permits, workplace safety and compliance at factories and industries across Bangladesh.
2013 has been a particularly trying year for Bangladeshis. Having barely recovered from the Tazreen garments fire, political killings and communal violence in 2012, the first quarter of 2013 has been characterised by bitter political in-fighting, religious intolerance and relentless strikes and shutdowns. But despite these collective frustrations, when disaster struck, there was no question of not setting aside our differences. Neither was there any allowance to lament on the shortcomings of our political parties, factory owners or compromised legal systems. We have suffered an immeasurable loss and the only sense of reassurance that we can take away from this is that we still have some fight left. A fight that we will channel into greater humanitarian good should there be a call for it.