Bangladesh’s Covid emergency needs to be recognised as one

Customers throng Noor Mansion Shopping Centre in the capital’s New Market area on the first day of reopening of malls after a brief four-day closure during the ongoing ‘lockdown’. Photo: Palash Khan

Bangladesh has been under lockdown since 6am April 5, 2021. This is the first time the nation is under lockdown to curb the spiralling spike in Covid-19 cases. While last year the nation took a similar—and perhaps more effective measure to flatten the curve—the government called it a general holiday. Although this time around the country is officially under a lockdown, given the mounting statistics, its effectiveness has been limited at best.

Covid cases are increasing by the day, the healthcare system is overloaded with patients seeking medical support, and there are people who are dying due to lack of treatment. There is an acute shortage of medical facility for Covid patients, including ICU facilities and medical care staff. People are practically dying in cars and ambulances as their loved ones take them from one hospital to another in search of treatment. And even for those who are seeking treatment at home, oxygen supply remains scarce. At a glance, this looks like a scenario from last year when the healthcare system almost collapsed under the pressure of the mounting Covid-19 cases.

While why this nightmare has been allowed to bog the nation down once again remains a major question that needs to be answered in the long-run; what is a more pressing question is how effective and practical are the measures that are currently being taken to address this situation.

Earlier in April, the cabinet division of the government issued a circular with a set of 11 directives defining the scope of the ongoing lockdown. The directives unfortunately seemed hastily penned, to say the least. The result: people blatantly ignored these directives and went about their usual business.

Over a period of just three to four days a lot of these directives have been reversed. While as per directive one, all public transport services remained initially suspended, the book fair remained open for public visit. On the third day of the countrywide lockdown, city buses were back on the roads. On the fourth day of the lockdown, the cabinet division allowed operation of shops and shopping malls from 9am to 5pm.

The National Board of Revenue (NBR) itself, has requested businesses to submit their VAT returns in their respective VAT offices during the lockdown, albeit while maintaining safety measures. One can only wonder why government offices are themselves not fully adhering to the lockdown measures, or why can the VAT returns not be submitted online. And this is just one case.

Also the first few two days of the lockdown were marked by anti-lockdown protests from various quarters across the country, with protests turning violent in some areas of the country, including Faridpur.

Moreover, the failure to clearly define the underprivileged and vulnerable communities—whose income would be significantly affected due to the "lockdown"—have forced them to come out of their homes in search of livelihood.

"We know where the slums are, we know where the vulnerable people live; it is possible to geographically identify these areas, there is clear segregation of the rich and the poor by geography in every city and if we could provide them with cash support or food assistance then they will not go out," suggested former World Bank lead economist, Zahid Hussain.

Zahid Hussain suggests that while people are under lockdown (if such a lockdown can actually be enforced), the authorities will need to "study the Covid-19 cases and trace which behaviour triggered the spread so that in the long-run those behaviours can be discouraged through policy." For instance, if the Covid spike has been due to a lack of sufficient quarantine of people coming from abroad, then measures need to be taken to rectify this. Or if the cases had been a result of people nonchalantly visiting tourist spots, then precautions can be taken to avoid such scenarios in the future. And the list goes on.

The government on Friday announced that the nation is moving towards a week-long hard lockdown from April 14. But one might be pardoned for asking, why this week-long delay in announcing the "hard lockdown"? If the hard lockdown had been imposed from April 5, or ideally even earlier, a lot more lives could have been saved.  

The authorities had successfully flattened the curve last year, and in doing so, became so complacent that it resulted in a scenario where they perhaps thought they had won the war against the all-pervasive pandemic, and not the battle.

As an outcome, we kept seeing rising cases of infections for some time, but it was not until things started going out of control that the government decided to impose lockdown measures.

While the government needs to strike a balance between lives and livelihoods, making sure no one dies of hunger or Covid, it needs to come up with a concrete, well-planned comprehensive strategy to contain the pandemic while ensuring people have sustenance.

If a hard lockdown is imposed, the government needs to ensure that the affected people are getting social safety support. For one, the government can utilise the 113 million Euro grant by EU and Germany provided to Bangladesh's "Social Protection Programme for Unemployed and Distressed Workers in the RMG, Leathergoods and Footwear Industries" late last year, to support workers whose income will be impacted by the pandemic.

The initial plan was to bring "laid-off, disabled and insolvent workers of export-oriented garment, leather and footwear manufacturing factories" under a scheme whereby they would be given Tk 3,000 per month for three months as part of financial support. The EU-Germany grant was meant to back this up. 80 million Euro (around Tk 800 crore) had been transferred to Bangladesh in December 2020 to support in strengthening the social security system.

Eligible workers under Social Protection Program for Unemployed and Distressed Workers in the RMG, Leathergoods and Footwear Industries managed by the Department of Labour, Ministry of Labour and Employment, received the first monthly instalment of Tk 3,000 on December 22, 2020.

While how much of this grant has been spent is not clear, whatever of it remains can be used to support workers who will be affected by the hard lockdown. And the government also needs to announce and implement a well-defined social safety package during the hard lockdown to make sure people stay indoors.

And a hard lockdown should be enforced like a hard lockdown, symmetrically applied to all, irrespective of people's political, social or financial muscle. If a rule is applicable for one, it should be applicable for all. Otherwise, the hard lockdown will only be as good as the apparently relaxed lockdown the country is now undergoing.

This is a serious situation, that demands serious, people-friendly and decisive action by the government. The people responsible for running the nation must realise that people's lives and livelihoods are at risk, and this is not the time for stop-gap, kneejerk, half-hearted measures. The government has already been late in its response to contain the second wave. Nothing would be more unfortunate for the nation right now than being led by people living a in world of half measures.


Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem



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