The talk of the town has lately been about the gathering of thousands of people from several districts to participate in the funeral prayer (Namaz-e-Janaza) of Maulana Jubayer Ahmed Ansari at Brahmanbaria. This without questions show the respect that those people had for Late Maulana Ansari but their action during this pandemic surely raises question of health security of the entire populace of the country.
On 19 March 2020, the Government of Bangladesh declared that the novel coronavirus (Covid-19) has been included in the list of contagious diseases in section 4(bha) of the Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control and Elimination) Act, 2018, effective from 8 March 2020. In alignment with the preventive actions being taken worldwide, the Government has also taken some important initiatives as to shutting down all educational institutions since 17 March 2020. The Government also shut down offices except a few performing emergency duties such as hospitals, fire services, etc. However, none of these steps will help fighting the current crisis if mass gathering occurs with all manners of physical contact when social distancing is to be prioritised instead.
The Act of 2018 provides all kinds of safety measures that the concerned authority is empowered to implement in a time of emergency, ranging from providing instructions and guidance to prevent, control and eliminate the contagious disease to punishing those who do not conform to the given laws. Nonetheless, such measures are only helpful if they can be enacted properly but where the non-followers exceed hundreds of thousands in number, laws remain just laws for the sake of lawmakers to endorse and common people to ignore.
The general religious principle of a funeral prayer is that it is an obligation to be fulfilled in case of death of a Muslim. However, if some Muslim people perform the prayer then the obligation is fulfilled properly. This raises the question as to whether participation of all those people in the funeral prayer was a luxury that the common people of Bangladesh cannot afford at the moment even though the utmost faith and respect shown there is unquestionable, along with their sheer ignorance for the greater safety measures.
Some might say that the funeral was a religious assembly and any resistance or disturbance caused to such assembly might be in violation of the law. However, let us discuss what the law says in this regard. Article 32 of the Constitution of People's Republic of Bangladesh protects right to life and personal liberty of the citizens but subject only to the existing prevailing law and the Act of 2018 was enacted with prevailing effect that has been entailed under section 3. Brahmanbaria was already under lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic hence it begs the question as to how this incident even occurred without any enforcing the safety measures. It also begs the question whether attending a funeral prayer should be given more importance than protecting an entire populace. Even the Saudi officials are urging Muslims everywhere to wait on their Hajj Pilgrimage preparations due to the current crisis, just to say!
The Act of 2018 further provides punishment scheme as well in case of violation of any of its provisions that range from merely hiding information about the virus to actually spreading the infectious virus. Section 24 of the Act states that spreading the virus knowingly or hiding the fact of carrying the infectious virus will constitute an offence whereas, section 25 states that it will also be an offence if anyone obstructs any concerned official to perform his duty to prevent or control such spread or if anyone does not follow the orders or instructions of any concerned official. Furthermore, section 26 adds that knowingly hiding or providing false information about the infectious virus will also constitute an offence. The punishments for all of these offences are imprisonment of maximum six months, three months, two months; or a fine of maximum one lac taka, fifty thousand taka, twenty five thousand taka; or both; respectively. With all these preventive measures and punishment provisions the real question that matters is that whether it is practically possible to identify the person potentially carrying an infectious virus in a mass gathering.
The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) shows no apparent visible gruesome symptoms like other infectious diseases but that does not render it any less dangerous. The virus has already established itself as a silent killer in the most developed countries with the most advanced medical facilities available. Therefore, in a country with 72.89% literacy rate, we are remaining far too much relaxed for our own good and instead of mass gathering if we do not achieve mass awareness in time or remain as ignorant in dealing with the predicament, the outcome might just be beyond salvation.
The writer is a Barrister and Lecturer in Law, BRAC University.