Pandemic may give rise to new leadership among Bangladeshi diasporas
The aftermath of the pandemic may mean a new generation of leaders among expatriate Bangladeshi communities.
This is one of the assertions of Ripon Ray, the founder of the BritBanglaCovid project. Ray interviewed Bangladeshis primarily living in London, and also in other parts of Britain, with the aim of chronicling their experiences during the pandemic.
Bangladeshis were among the most affected ethnic groups in Britain with a three times higher mortality rate than the general population.
While the mortality among other ethnic groups, such as those from a Caribbean background, steadily declined in latter waves, deaths in the Bangladeshi community continued to be among the highest. A Bangladeshi male was five times more likely to die of coronavirus in the second and third waves as compared to the wider population.
Doctors' groups in the UK have warned that the pandemic risks entrenching longstanding racial inequalities disproportionately affected Bangladeshi communities.
This has led to a new generation of leadership within the community, voices like Ripon Ray sensitised to the vulnerabilities of their community and their relative invisibility to Western governments.
Ray's report tabled to local governments outlined how language services have steadily declined. This affected the messaging around vaccine uptake and the importance of measures like social distancing. Those over the age of 60 were especially affected.
There was also the realisation that the written word was not always an effective way for wider reach due to many having no formal education. In future campaigns around public health or other crises, community leaders argued there was a need to involve more oral communication such as telephone or face to face conversations.
Similar trends arose in the United States, especially in New York where Bangladeshis were especially hard hit. Despite occupying the lowest socio-economic groups they are counted among the broad group of Asians, which include all sorts of nationalities. Indians, for example, occupy the highest socio-economic category but are counted with Bangladeshis in New York. The need for a stronger representative voice is spurring a new generation of leaders in response.
"We see the South Asian data and we know it's mostly us, and the city needs to acknowledge that," said Moumita Ahmed to the Gotham Gazette. Ahmed is a Bangladeshi-American activist from Queens who ran for local government. "Bangladeshis need to understand the data so the people in the community can take measures and precautions they need to take as a collective. We didn't get a chance to do that."
Much like London, specific targeting of the community through appropriate language resources was inadequate in New York. Bengali is the fourth most spoken language among foreign-born New Yorkers but did not receive focused attention. There was also a lack of anticipation that the higher rates of diabetes, greater employment in the physical economy and lower rates of health insurance would leave the community vulnerable. Even the food distribution services failed to take into account the need for Halal produce leaving many hungry during Ramadan last year.
In my home city of Sydney in Australia, local activist Sabrin Farooqui has become a conduit between the government and sections of the Bangladesh community. Through her work with the Rohingyas, she has been critical in the government releasing funding for asylum seekers, recognising many of them work in the black market cash economy. As a result, they were not eligible for government grants. But this meant they were more likely to leave their premises in search of work potentially endangering others. Farooqui is also a Senior Vice President of Labor for Refugees NSW, a team that seeks a just and fair Labor Party policy on refugees and people seeking asylum. The pandemic has been better controlled in Australia with relatively few deaths. Farooqui noted the greater focus on skilled migration in Australia meant the local community had a higher proportion of highly educated, knowledge workers. Vaccine hesitancy among Australian Bangladeshis for example has been low, unlike the trends internationally.
An aspect of Ripon Ray's work that raises some interesting implications is the fatalism around Bangladeshi communities he observed in Britain, especially the elderly. He found ill health and deaths were contributed to by the common attitude of having little agency in reducing the risk of death and disease. It was all up to God. This religious interpretation of pre-destination will be familiar to all Bangladeshis, but it appeared to be especially damaging during the pandemic. This suggests a new, younger generation of leaders will also drive some intergenerational tensions among the traditional, socially conservative Bangladeshi communities living overseas.
Ray's work has inspired further collaboration with the university Kings College in partnership with a not-for-profit Swadhinata Trust. There are still fears that an imminent winter in the Northern Hemisphere may cost casualties in vulnerable communities where public health messaging is lax.
Regardless of where the diaspora lives, there is a broader lament about the greater distance it has engendered with their homeland. The inability to see or visit relatives has built a greater distance. The common practices of combining weddings and funerals with return visits to Bangladesh have also stalled, possibly changing such rituals into the longer term. The diaspora identity and its relationship to Bangladesh may have fundamentally changed.
But the trends identified above suggest the tragedies experienced among Bangladeshis have energised and politicised a new generation. It may bode well for greater engagement within Western governments into the future. This is long overdue.
Dr Tanveer Ahmed is an Australia based psychiatrist, and the author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org