My heart sank when I saw the headline in The Daily Star on August 17, which reported that the US had updated its periodic travel advisory on August 6, 2020 and urged its citizens to exercise "increased caution in the country due to crime, terrorism, and kidnapping". This news was particularly jaw-dropping for many of my fellow Bangladeshis. On the brighter side, Bangladesh is not alone in this roster of Red States since India, China and Bhutan are also in the Level 4 category. However, Pakistan, Nepal and Sri Lanka are in the Level 3 category which means that these countries are in the Orange rather than the Red Zone.
"J'accuse." Emile Zola's citizen's protest was on my mind when I read about the travel advisory. As a US citizen, I question the justification for this decision and find that the State Department's analysts used arbitrary standards and issued the advisory in haste. The US Government should reconsider and eventually revise the Travel Advisory issued earlier this month, which advises US citizens to abstain from visiting Bangladesh and slaps my birthplace with the label of a Level 4 (or "Red") destination, putting it on a "do not travel" list.
The crimes of which Bangladeshis and the government are accused of in the advisory are all-inclusive catch-all offences such as muggings, traffic jams, poor infrastructure and terrorism.
The implication of this Advisory is that my government is now trying to steer me away from going back to Bangladesh, where I have an extended family, including my mother-in-law and a brother. Only a few airlines are flying to Bangladesh, and the other hurdles or roadblocks that stand in the way of my travel plans are mind-boggling. We have to consider not only the known logistical challenges but also to factor in the uncertainties and make contingency plans in case of unexpected glitches, including illnesses, while in Bangladesh. A traveler has to get tests done and obtain certificates, plan for possible quarantines both in Bangladesh and the USA, and take leave from work. To be on the safe side, one also needs to apply for additional "Covid-19 sickness" sick-time.
My family in the USA have been waiting to go to Bangladesh for the last six months, but we are not alone in this situation. Between one and two million people of Bangladeshi origin live in the USA. A sizeable number of them travel to Bangladesh for multiple reasons: personal, business, tourism etc. This year, they have all been forced to constantly revise their future plans to travel to Bangladesh, and while Covid-19 is still raging in all countries, the Travel Advisory has also put students, non-residents and businessman with ties to Bangladesh in limbo.
As I review the reasons for judging Bangladesh to be a risky place to visit, it is evident that apart from the impact of Covid-19, the conditions on the ground have not gotten any worse in the last few months. If one exercises social distancing, keeps away from crowded bazaars and parties, and practices the health and safety protocols of CDC after you land in Bangladesh, there is no reason to consider the country any more dangerous than other South Asian countries.
I, therefore, feel like shouting at the top of my voice like Zola—"J'accuse". The eminent French writer accused his own government of injustice against its citizens. The celebrated open letter from Emile Zola to the president of the French Republic was in defence of Alfred Dreyfus, a Jewish officer who had been accused of treason by the French army. Zola pointed out judicial errors and lack of serious evidence. It was published in the newspaper L'Aurore on January 13, 1898.
If we take the most recent data from Johns Hopkins University, Bangladesh has the lowest per capita infection and death rate when compared with India and Pakistan. As of August 31, the numbers are as follows—India had more than 3.6 million confirmed cases and almost 65,000 deaths, and Pakistan had almost 300,000 confirmed cases and over 6,000 deaths. In Bangladesh, there were 312, 996 confirmed cases and 4,281 deaths. So, the numbers speak for themselves.
The warning against travelling to Bangladesh will be a big setback for many like me, who have been waiting since last year. I don't care whether it is winter or summer, I want to go there whenever I desire. This freedom to visit Bangladesh eases the pain of living so far away, and of not seeing my family, friends, and near and dear ones. It cannot be taken away. I also need to visit the final resting place of my parents and brothers.
There is a song by Carol King where she croons—"Winter, spring, summer or fall, all you have to do is call, and I'll be there".
I have always said the magic words to my mother, and my three aunts—I'll be there. My youngest aunt, the eminent litterateur Asma Abbasi and her husband, Mustafa Zaman Abbasi, the scholar and musician, are homebound, and my aunt needs her dearest nephew to be near her.
It must be mentioned that the State Department's website has some admirable suggestions for travellers and concedes that "In Bangladesh, the crime rate impacting foreigners is generally low… there are no indications foreigners are being targeted of their nationality." However, it is off the mark when it also declares that "Terrorism events can happen with little or no warning, with terrorists targeting public areas such as tourist locations, transportation hubs, markets/shopping malls, restaurants, places of worship, school campuses, and government facilities." Really?
My protest is not only against the US government but also some of its biases. A recent study shows that countries led by women had "systematically and significantly better" Covid-19 outcomes than those led by men. The analysis of 194 countries, published by the Centre for Economic Policy Research and the World Economic Forum, suggests the difference is real and "may be explained by the proactive and coordinated policy responses" adopted by the female leaders. And Bangladesh is one of them.
Crime rates are significantly lower in Bangladesh, in sharp contrast to the level of violence recorded in Pakistan. According to published data, the violent crime rate (intentional homicide) in Pakistan is three times more than in Bangladesh. Admittedly, some areas of Bangladesh might be considered risky for foreigners. The State Department Advisory warns, "Travel is dangerous to the Chattogram Hill Tracts due to occasional communal violence and other security risks". However, that does not in any way imply that the country is unsafe!
Dr Abdullah Shibli is an economist and currently works in information technology. He is also Senior Research Fellow, International Sustainable Development Institute (ISDI), a think-tank in Boston, USA.