The Heart of the Matter
There is a rush hour traffic out there. People after spending a short Eid escapade are frantically returning to the capital as the lockdown tolls the knell of a parting holiday. Conversely, there is an outgoing traffic of people who are desperately rushing out of Dhaka beefing that they do not have anything to do in the city during yet another shutdown. Such a flow of traffic through the veins with Dhaka at its centre makes me wonder of the different connotations of the heart.
Not only is the shape and location of Dhaka analogous to that of a heart, but also the circulatory function played by the city is a reminder of an organ made up with involuntary muscles. Dhaka is the central administrative organ that delivers sustenance to every part of its territorial body. It receives people who come to the centre with many issues that need to be resolved before being sent back to their respective cells. Some stay back clogging the system, putting additional pressure on the related organs; e.g. the lung cries with air pollution, and kidney with the sewage blockage. In order for the heart to stay healthy and functional, the systemic flow is a must. Then again, the involuntary nature of the heart muscles suggest that there is a complete lack of control over the mechanical process unless the head has a role to play. For instance, those who had to wait four hours to travel 10 km from Mahakhali to Abdullahpur before Eid day will tell you how the heart had a near thrombosis. The holiday policy and the lockdown relaxation allowed the heart to feel the unimaginable pressure.
On the other hand, the heart as a metaphor has a mind of its own. It listens to its own instincts. The scaremongering with which the government tried to control the flow to deal with the scourge has shown little or no effect. Notwithstanding 200 plus deaths and 38 percent positive detection rate a day, people literally go out of their houses to see the lockdown circus the way death is voyeuristically viewed during the Halloween in the west. It takes a lot of heart to ignore death with such a carefree attitude. The courage or foolishness debate behind such acts can only be surmised by the adage: where angels fear to tread, fools rush in!
In the last 18 months, people have somewhat become ambivalent towards this pandemic. They have learned to live with disease and its consequent death. Their indifference to death ironically both highlights and celebrates life. I was listening to a mother who was interviewed by a TV journalist on the deck of a ferryboat during the last holiday onrush. "What good is my job in Dhaka if I cannot see my child during this holiday once a year?" Try using your fear tactic to negate the logic of a mother who must go home despite all hurdles thrown at her like in a video game. You can't. At the end of the day, here is a mother who will do anything in her power to see her child. She has saved up her savings to perhaps buy a new dress or a toy. You cannot stop her from going home saying that, listen, you are a potential vector; the gift that you are carrying is a gift of disease and even death. For her, love is immediate and real; death is deferred and denied.
Last week, I was sitting at the waiting lounge before a Covid-19 ICU of a city hospital. There was no fear among most of the attendants, staff or doctors. I guess, compared to last year, the mortality rate has gone down because patients are not abandoned to die and treated as pariahs. There are more people willing to express their love for the sick and the dead. Maybe by now we are a bit more informed about the nature of this virus. Then again, to pretend that this disease is defeated can be the greatest folly that one can think of, and to deny the multifaceted implications of the disease will be fatal.
Seeing dead bodies coming out of the ICU, seeing the difficulties the attendants find in paying up the hospital charges, seeing the manipulation of emotion of the relatives by the medical professionals who prolong the treatment, seeing the orchestration of supply of medicine, oxygen and other essentials, I was forced to think of the heart metaphor all over again. I wondered has this city got any heart at all!
We had to buy one ampule of injection to stop the spread of lung infection of our patient paying Tk 2.5 lakh. The original price is Tk 40,000. This more than six times hike is manipulated through an artificial market shortage. Everyone knows it! This is true for every little item associated with this pandemic. Have you noticed that the price of your ordinary liquid soap has doubled in the last one year? Oh, they are simply marketing it in a new packet. Even the price of your daily food supplements has gone up. You wonder how do these greedy individuals who profit from the misfortune of others sleep at night? Do they have any heart at all?
Perhaps we need to address the heart of the matter. Instead of simply saying wear masks and maintain social distancing, we need a different flow of information. It's all in the flow. We need a free-flow of information about the pros-and-cons of a lockdown. Instead of simply imposing it, we need to create public opinion through logic. In epidemiological terms, the virus has an incubation period of 14 days, and another week is needed for the residual infection to die out. For the lockdown to be effective, everyone needs to be in quarantine for 21 days. But how effective was the lockdown with its seven-day relaxed clause, allowing people to rush out of and rush into the city? What signals are the head of government giving to the hearts of the people? Can we really blame the people for such half-hearted compliance with the lockdown measures?
In order to make the gravity of the situation heartfelt, there has to be a concerted flow of information. If you ask a bus driver not to ply, he must see how his sacrifice counts. If he sees that there are makeshift arrangements for transporting people and a new group are benefitting from his temporary absence from the business, he will be reluctant to follow health protocols when his chance to drive is available. His frustration and anger will be part of his coping mechanism.
Faced with the pandemic, too many of us are shifting to denial mode. Few of us have managed to find altruistic and subliminal functions to convert the negative energy into something positive by helping others or doing something productive. However, most other psychotic responses, as is evident through the mob behaviour during this lockdown lift, have been immature. Understandably, many of these people are anxious over their financial condition; they are frustrated over the lack of mobility; they are depressed over how things are affecting their lives; they are angry over the economic divide created by this mostly technology driven solution to the crisis. Their toxicity is affecting the blood (read passion) that flows in and out of the social heart.
Why don't we make a factsheet for a change: how much money is needed to treat a coronavirus patient? How much will one save by not becoming a patient? What will happen to the dependents if the life of a Covid-19 patient is lost? Is it worth taking the risk to buy a dress or a toy for a child? Is it worth to keep the businesses open to buy a big cow as a display of one's id? We need to talk sense. We need to deal with the heart of the matter. We need to make sure that people understand that heart matters. Once it stops, the heart will have no reason, no information fluid to process. We can have the fools rushing in to clog the system and kill it. Now the question is: how is the head protecting the heart?
Shamsad Mortuza is Pro-Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB), and a professor of English at Dhaka University (on leave).