New measures needed to offset second wave fallouts
The second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic hit Bangladesh in early March this year -- almost exactly a year after the initial wave reached the country's shores.
The second wave has brought with it a completely new set of experiences, causing fresh disruptions in regards to the people's lives and livelihoods.
The first wave was all about fighting an unknown contagion and coping with livelihood challenges, which were previously left unattended.
In contrast, the second wave has attacked people more directly at a time when it was largely perceived that the disease was no longer 'unknown' and the livelihood challenges are likely to be solved.
But the fact is that the second wave has emerged as a set of new benchmarks for adversity on life in the country.
These benchmarks are – (a) the disease will not be 'short-lived'; (b) the new variants of the virus are deadlier than the earlier ones; (c) the vaccine given is not effective against all variants and hence, (d) the people have realised that their livelihoods would need to continue along with the continuous attack of the coronavirus.
These new benchmarks need to be well understood and the ways to handle this new situation needs alternate approaches.
In January, the people were under the impression that the pandemic was over as the rate of infection had declined significantly after peaking on July 2, 2020, when it was 4,019 new patients per day.
The daily number of new patients eventually shrank to 385 by February 28 this year.
The whole country then strongly believed that the way it had handled the first wave -- by opening up economic activities and, despite the risks, with little adverse effect to people's lives -- was a successful approach and hence, there is less need to take safety measures to stop further contamination.
To address the livelihood concerns, the government had taken steps targeting affected people and businesses through monetary and fiscal policy support. However, those measures have partly contributed to coping with the vulnerabilities of a section of people and enterprises.
To address health concerns, the vaccination programme began in January, which has further built confidence among people for going back to normal life within a few months.
During the second wave, the virus -- mostly the South African variant -- is found to be deadlier with more complicacy among Covid patients and requires longer and costly treatment.
The benchmark on 'life' related concerns in the second wave are different compared to that of the first one. The available infrastructure to provide health related support -- supply of oxygen and ICU facilities -- is inadequate.
On the other hand, the 'livelihood' related concerns are different during the second wave. Unlike the first wave, most people now have very little amount of savings to survive even for a short period of time unless they are allowed to continue their jobs.
The government support for marginalised people would contribute little to their day-to-day living as experienced earlier. These marginal people could only survive by further reducing their consumption and selling the limited amount of assets that remain.
Moreover, there is a supply crisis of essential products particularly rice, oil, vegetables and sugar.
The open market sales operation, food-friendly programme and VGD/VGF have been implemented at an extended level. The volatility in the market due to limited supply would further increase the inflationary pressure in the coming days and would push the people into further distress.
Hence, an alternate approach is needed.
The new approach needs to be nuanced between different activities and initiatives with regard to public health and economic activities. One possible mechanism would be to ensure maintaining health protocol in public places through strict monitoring mechanisms and to allow economic activities on limited scale.
In case people are found to be ignorant about following health protocols, they should be punished.
Factories which do not comply with the protocol would be immediately punished. In extreme cases, the factory should be forced to shut down.
There should be three time periods for workers to enter and exit the factories. Regular visits by the factory inspectors should be ensured and they should have magistracy power to immediately enforce action.
The businesses, particularly shops and stores, will not be allowed to operate without following health protocols -- both the sellers and customers must wear masks.
Stricter rules should be there to allow limited number of customers in a departmental store at a time. Failure to comply with the rule should cost shop owners hefty fines or closure of the premises.
General people will be strictly forced to stay home and wear masks in case of moving outside; otherwise, they should be penalised.
A proper enforcement of such massive scale monitoring and enforcement drive for maintaining health protocol would be difficult only due to the limited number of officials currently in charge.
It is important to extend the monitoring and enforcement responsibility for a short period of time to other eligible public agencies.
All law enforcement agencies and armed forces need to be deployed in order to ensure full enforcement of the public order. The field officers of different agencies need to have magistracy power to quickly enforce the action.
Necessary government/office orders should be made in this regard.
However, the field officers and law enforcement agencies need to ensure transparency in their activities and should be free from any types of allegation of unethical and illegal activities.
The healthcare facilities should be significantly enhanced soon. The most important of these which has already been identified by the public health experts include increasing the number of ICU beds, ICU units and increasing the supply of oxygen and testing and other facilities.
Necessary investment should be made for making ready some unused facilities for Covid patients.
The government should help the private hospitals increase their treatment facilities for Covid patients. The government may provide financial support to private hospitals across the country to subsidise treatment facilities as well.
The extent of government support to different categories of people will depend on how long and in which form the lockdown operation will be enacted.
However, the government should further increase the open market sales of essential foods at subsidised prices across the country immediately.
In order to stabilise the market price, import of essential consumer goods needs to be increased either by the private sector or partly by the government.
Appointment of different health professionals should be done immediately. The vaccination measures should be further extended for those who are still outside of the programme, including people below 40 years and people who did not register for vaccination.
The life and livelihood may need to continue side by side in the presence of the coronavirus as it might not vanish within the next few years.
The writer is the research director of the Centre for Policy Dialogue.