The other deadly ‘virus’: inefficiency
While we are haunted by the spectre of coronavirus damaging our society, its health and the economy, there is another "virus" that has been destroying us from inside for decades -- inefficiency. The vicious grip of the "inefficiency virus" is being exhibited almost on a daily basis as we take one measure after another to fight the global pandemic.
Having an efficient prime minister -- even her worst critics admit that she works very hard -- is hardly enough when she is served by a system that has no accountability, a structure given more to legalism than to performance and personnel to whom people are meant to be dominated rather than served.
While speaking to the district officials on April 7, the prime minister warned that "If we see the trend of its spread in the world, it is like mathematics; and if we gather the experience of other countries, we may face a massive blow in April and we are getting this sign and reports."
The PM's expression of "a massive blow" stands in stark contrast to the repeated messages of being "well prepared" to face the coronavirus that have been given out so far. She referred to "reports" which, if shared, would have given us a clearer picture of the "blow" that is on its way.
The dire situation that we face today is known. But are we prepared to face it? While we understand and appreciate the earnestness of the prime minister, we are afraid that the "inefficiency virus" will make our fight against the coronavirus difficult and ineffective and, in many unfortunate cases, fatal.
Let us examine our experiences so far. The early warnings were not heeded to say the least. I can live with the fact that when China was the epicentre of the disease, we could have thought that we are not going to be affected. But when it spread to Italy and the evidence was clear that it was carried by travellers, we have allowed flights from China to operate till March 28. What could have led us to this inexplicable and "shooting ourselves in the foot" decision?
Then when Italy became the epicentre of the pandemic in Europe, we allowed returnees from Europe -- more than two hundred thousand of them -- to just walk into Bangladesh. In the name of screening what had at the airport was just a handheld temperature check gun.
Then came the fiasco with quarantine. In contrast to the declared policy of hundred percent quarantine on arrival, which proved to be a joke, no preparation was made to handle the volume of traffic. Earlier when students from China were flown back, they had to go through a well-organised quarantine procedure. But when the influx from Europe flooded our airport, the facilities proved highly inadequate because of abysmal preparation leading the authorities to abandon the idea.
Then came the most crucial mistake of all -- home quarantine without adequate preparation. Returnees from Europe, especially those from Italy, were allowed to return to their villages with instructions to remain in "self-quarantine" without thinking whether it was practical and without ensuring that people understood what "home quarantine" meant. The blunder was further exacerbated by not keeping a record of their cell phone numbers -- which most returnees or their relatives had -- and their home addresses. This precluded any possibility of monitoring them later.
The "inefficiency virus" that Sheikh Hasina has had and will continue to have to grapple with is a multifaceted threat not necessarily confined to a set of inefficient individual officials. Its most debilitating manifestation is a lack of coordination -- the right hand not knowing what the left hand is doing. It exists at almost all levels -- between ministerial, within them, within departments of respective ministries, within sections of departments and finally between officials who run them as they are more interested in ensuring that protocol and hierarchy are maintained rather than whether a work is done or not.
The effect of a lack of coordination was well exhibited by the way our health sector functioned where the minister himself went public with the compliant that he did not know what was going on. The early gulf between claims and reality in terms of preparation of testing facilities, hospitals beds, availability of ventilators, availability of doctors at hospitals, where to report in case of infection, how to get tested if symptom occurs created a huge credibility gap between the authorities and the public.
The lack of accountability in government service creates another fertile ground for inefficiency to breed. No official is ever held accountable for a government policy or project not being implemented in full or within the schedule. Rare exception aside, most medium to big projects -- mega projects have their own dynamics -- are literally never completed on time. Time extensions and cost escalations are normal with seldom any explanation as to why and no one ever being held responsible and punished. A rudimentary investigation in any one of them would have revealed that crores of taka were siphoned off in this manner while the state machinery approved each case of time and cost overrun. On the other side, tax payers had to foot the revised and inflated bills of unexplained and unacceptable cost hike.
Whatever may have been the experiences of the last few months, the real test lies ahead for the government. How we tackle the "massive blow" to be generated by the coronavirus, that the PM has alerted us about, will be greatly determined by how we tackle the "inefficiency virus". Already newspapers are replete with reports of rice meant for the poor being found in the houses of local leaders.
For the task ahead, a whole new level of efficiency is called for. For that to happen, accountable structures which are flexible as well as effective need to be set up on two fronts -- health and the economy. On the health front, we see daily how New York state first faltered and then geared itself up and is now fighting the coronavirus effectively. We see the state governor coming before the public, through the media, on a daily basis, telling the people what's going on and reassuring its citizens as to what needs to be done and what the government is doing. We will need a similar kind of mechanism of assurance and accountability.
And for the economy, the immediate challenge is the judicious and quick distribution of the government's stimulus package. We never handled -- never had the need to -- such a huge amount of money to be injected into the economy in such a limited period of time. If not done with proper check and balance, a huge amount could be misused and misappropriated. The "inefficiency" bug has its takers who are waiting with drooping tongues to slurp up the cash incentives and send it abroad.
We face the most challenging time and we need the most efficient government machinery we can possibly muster to handle it. Handling it as business as usual will be devastating.