As Bangladesh started a new phase of lockdown on April 14, 2021—apparently a more stringent one—the country was faced with a grim milestone. On the first day of the Bengali New Year, the country recorded 96 deaths, the highest till then, since the pandemic hit the country.
It was also the first day of the holy month of Ramadan and social media was flooded with pictures of happy people gathering together in the alleys of Old Dhaka in the evening to buy the Iftar delicacies that the place is well-known for, and cars being lined up on one of the main roads of Dhanmondi—a buzzing neighbourhood, where people were out to the buy their favourite jilapi from a popular sweet store.
The social media was also abuzz with reports of hundreds of thousands of people applying for the "movement pass", which would enable them to commute from one place to another during the hard lockdown, in case of emergencies. By 7pm the police had already issued 250,000 movement passes, as reported by the media.
Two days later, on April 16, 2021, the country's Covid daily death toll reached a triple figure number: 101. The previous day, the total number of deaths had crossed the 10,000 mark.
While the rapid spread of the virus is an overwhelming concern in itself, the mismanagement in enforcing the new lockdown measures has also raised eyebrows.
On the first day of the hard lockdown, healthcare professionals, including doctors and nurses, were stopped by the police, and one of them was even fined Tk 3,000 for not carrying a movement pass. As frontline fighters, they were supposed to have been exempt from the movement restrictions, and their ID cards were supposed to have bene enough to commute to their workplaces. The fine was later waived.
While talking to a news portal about this situation, joint secretary general of Foundation for Doctors' Safety, Rights and Responsibilities (FDSR), Rahat Anwar Chowdhury said, "We don't go outdoors for entertainment. We are jobholders. We will lose our jobs if we don't go to hospitals."
Inconsistencies in the lockdown seem inherent in the country. Take the fiasco over the operational capacity of the banks for instance. On April 12 the authorities decided to keep the banks and the stock market closed during the week-long lockdown. In this regard Bangladesh Bank had also ordered the banks to keep the ATM booths and internet banking facilities active during the lockdown.
People and businesses alike spent a tough day scrambling to sort out their banking operations on April 13, only to hear later in the day that banks will remain open in limited-capacity during the lockdown.
And while workers employed in various factories are exempt from the restriction on movement during the hard lockdown, others who were working in the informal sector have been left out of consideration it seems.
With no work and no social safety support to feed themselves and their families, people belonging to the lowest rungs of the social ladder—rickshaw pullers, construction workers, domestic help, small business employees, day labourers, among others—had been left to worry about the bleakness of a future plagued with hunger and uncertainties.
It was only on April 15, nearly 10 days into the lockdown, that a government spokesperson suggested that they were considering distributing cash aid among the vulnerable communities.
A joint secretary of the finance division, Shirajun Noor Chowdhury, as reported by the media, said, "A couple of meetings have recently been held in this regard. The final decision on distribution will be taken after the completion of preparations ... If the nationwide lockdown continues for two more weeks, then it will likely be disbursed."
On April 8, 2021, the finance division had sent a proposal to the prime minister to disburse a one-off Tk 2,500 cash assistance to almost 3.5 million poor families before Eid through the mobile financial services. The disbursement will be made, upon approval.
And how would these vulnerable communities fend for themselves till the cash aid is disbursed, if disbursed at all? And why is this concern surfacing now, nearly two weeks after the lockdown began?
According to a report by Prothom Alo titled, "Tk 20b cash aid for poor lies idle", the government "still has Tk 19.34 billion (1,935 crore) in its hands from these two funds [from last year's cash assistance programme]... In addition to this, Bangladesh Bank, in a letter on February 25, informed the finance division that cash assistance didn't reach to 402,168 families even after releasing the money. Hence, Tk 1.01 billion (101.15 crore) of the state exchequer remains in the hands of four mobile financial services (MFSs) providers—bKash, Nagad, Rocket and SureCash. And this money must be taken back."
One might be pardoned for asking, why were these idle funds not tapped into to support the vulnerable communities at the beginning of the first lockdown?
Thanks to a lack of food, these people, often deprived of required nutrition, will have weakened immune system, making them more prone to the all-pervasive virus.
And this pandemic is not an equaliser, the poor will become poorer, the weak will grow weaker, and the virus will find them easy prey.
What is surprising is that the government is not utilising its takeaways from the success of last year's "general holidays" in flattening the curve. Despite falling short of acknowledging the lockdown-like situation last year as a lockdown, and despite the many instances of irregularities, the government in 2020 had still made significant success in curbing the spread of the disease.
Within a few months the curve had been flattened and the situation had stabilised. Going by that logic, this year, combating the disease should have been easier, since the government has already been through the drill. This time they could have executed it with better efficiency, better effectiveness. Unfortunately, none of this has happened.
During the first phase of the lockdown from April 5, many of the directives issued by the government had been reversed. The result: spiralling cases of Covid. Soon it was announced that a tougher lockdown will be implemented. The hard lockdown came amidst rising cases, but the hiccups from the very beginning seems to have marred its seriousness. Over the last two weeks, the people have taken to the social media to express their frustrations over the mismanaged and sometimes even self-contradictory lockdown directives. And the inconveniences they are having to face due to these half measures.
But this is no time to complain. This is time to act, to take serious measures to combat the spread of this disease. The healthcare system is being overwhelmed. As reported multiple times by the media, there is a growing shortage of medical facilities for Covid patients and many are succumbing to the virus due to lack of treatment.
The government of course has many logistical challenges to overcome to impose and enforce a strict lockdown including arranging and disbursing aid. But we should have had the benefit of experience.
If the government keeps announcing half-hearted lockdowns and allows people to violate the directives, or reverse them from time to time, the healthcare system will crumble under mounting pressure. And that is one scenario no one wants. There is no way out of this situation right now, other than strictly enforcing a hard lockdown, while bringing the vulnerable under a broader social safety net programme.
This is a generational challenge we are fighting, and times like these demand decisive measures.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem