Plagues, pandemics, floods and blights, we were once taught, are vehicles of retribution, weeding out those who have not prepared for divine wrath—the greedy, reckless, and arrogant. Yet heavenly justice can be merciless and undiscerning, destroying innocent lives for the hubris of their leaders. As the global division of labour has expanded and deepened, decades of "structural adjustment", privatisation, deregulation, austerity measures and the deliberate destruction of public institutions and social welfare infrastructure have left a fundamentally weak and vulnerable world. Now the West lies crippled, much of the Third World unable to even measure their predicament, and only a handful of governments managing any kind of effective response at all.
Here, in this crowded land, the first phase of an unofficial lockdown began after March 17, becoming official as of March 25. The government had at least two months to prepare since the first wave of both people and news arrived from China; yet it appears that, for some, other activities took precedence over the health of their fellow citizens. Now that we are finally taking it seriously, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina insists that we must "take measures in such a way that we can protect every person of the country [from the deadly disease]," while Health and Family Welfare Minister Zahid Maleque has declared that "our country is now safe and doing well" (The Daily Star, March 30, 2020). Indeed, with very few new cases of infections being reported, it seems that Bangladesh is succeeding where so many of the mighty have failed. A formidable achievement indeed!
We have, however, sincere doubts about what is being said and the integrity of our institutions. Amidst continued claims that there are no shortages (bdnews24, March 29, 2020), only one of the four facilities originally assigned to be used for coronavirus patients is reported to be equipped for the task. There are severe shortages of protective gear for hospital staff, and too many reports of rejected patients, doctors and nurses refusing to approach them, forcing family members to attend to them instead. Even now, in the fourth week of the pandemic's career in Bangladesh, we are coming across news of a critical patient spending 12 hours in an ambulance, trying to get admitted into six hospitals one after another, only to die in the end with zero medical attention (Prothom Alo, March 29, 2020). Meanwhile, the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) continues to stick to its own narratives with numerous reports coming in everyday of people unable to reach anyone on their "hotline".
While we preach "social distancing", practice surgical sanitisation, bemoan the flood of returning migrants and the en masse evacuation of Dhaka, we forget that our "remittance soldiers" do not have the support system to stay in a foreign land without daily wages, and that the working classes do not have the luxury of "social distancing" or sanitisation while going hungry for days under the lockdown (The Daily Star, March 23, 2020). We have put the onus on able-bodied individuals to ensure their personal safety, while disguising the structural inequality that determines who gets infected and who can save themselves. Social distancing is social inequality: the elite retreat into safety while marginalised communities (the working classes, the impoverished elderly, sex workers, the hijra-transgender community, etc.) are left exposed. The nation has been abandoned to figure out how to survive on its own, either by hoarding monthly supplies, self-medicating, or reaching out to people in need. Such is the state of this aspiring "middle-income" country.
Covid-19 has stripped naked the modern nation-state everywhere. The helplessness of the world's great statesmen to contain this pandemic has unmasked the deadly flaws in the structure of global capitalism that we have been enduring for ages, under the illusion that such a system is the path to human freedom and progress. This is what happens when we allow private gain to become the organising principle of social life: a world where we can produce enough "fast fashion", but not enough protective masks—a Bangladesh where we have the space to throw extravagant weddings, but not enough to provide safe housing during a crisis. Nishant Shah, a friend of one of the writers, has put it well: "[T]he reason why we shall not accept this as normal is because the call for normalcy—and its accomplished rhetoric of productivity, work, business-as-usual—is in the service of the very system that has led to this crisis."
Encouragingly, collective efforts have emerged to raise funds and provide PPE and other necessities to the "socially distanced". Such efforts are commendable; yet why do these working-class bodies have to live on our handouts, instead of what they are entitled to as citizens of the state? While affluent voices have cried over the fate of "khete-khawa manush", they have looked on at the state agencies beating and humiliating citizens, the "undisciplined" bodies, denying them the right to live with dignity. Where are these "small punishments" for the hoarders, or for the factory owners who forced workers to continue to expose themselves to hundreds and thousands of others in crowded factories every day? Even as late as March 21, the state minister for labour declared that RMG factories would continue to operate unless the prime minister directed them to stop, ignoring warnings about the disproportionate risk garment workers were facing (New Age, March 22, 2020). Despite many impassioned speeches, there is still no official injunction requiring all factories to shut down, for all due wages to be paid, and no guarantee that workers will not be sacked. Meanwhile, beyond the RMG industry, the body-count has begun: when workers at a jute mill in Biral, Dinajpur came out to demand all unpaid wages (fearing a shutdown), the police responded with bullets and beatings, killing a paan-seller, a bystander, in the process (Jagonews24, March 26, 2020).
Just like in the aftermath of the Rana Plaza massacre, millions of taka are flowing in from everywhere without any transparent plan about how this money will be managed (such as the BGB's 125 million donation, Dhaka Tribune, March 30, 2020). We demand a full disclosure of the state's strategy to deal with this pandemic, and accountability regarding the distribution of funds. Charity will not save us. Both the state and the industrial-corporate class have deployed a narrative of common humanity to implore the affluent to help "the needy", the same narrative that makes us believe that we can help the many without inconveniencing the few. This is an illusion; the wealth and power of the latter rest on the perpetuation of social arrangements that generate the misery and dispossession of the former. If anything, this pandemic has taught us a brutal lesson on just how much our lives are intertwined. Lockdowns and closed doors can only delay the inevitable. When the time comes, the state will have to answer for everyone who may die. Let us not make a man-made disaster look like natural selection. We are all in this together, after all.
Seuty Sabur and Shehzad M Arifeen both teach anthropology at the Department of Economics and Social Sciences, Brac University.