The country, and the world at large, has changed at an unprecedented pace over the last eight days. All 193 of the UN member countries have reported the existence of Covid-19 within their borders. We remain homebound, along with a third of humanity. No other global crisis has reached so many countries and people in the past, not even the Spanish flu in 1918. It is levelling socioeconomic gaps. Rich, poor, the powerful and the disenfranchised – all are susceptible.
My wife and I decided to give in to the mounting pressure from our children and finally stay home from March 18, 2020—incidentally the day the first Covid-19 related death was announced in Bangladesh. At the risk of sounding insensitive, the first hit for us was in our apartment building. The caretaker left his job without notice. The cleaner became irregular. I decided to take over some of their jobs, including distributing newspapers to different apartments. As a precaution for all involved, we gave paid leave to our help.
Now that we are on our own, I'm letting the inner optimist out and approaching this from a glass half-full perspective. I finally have time to do things that I don't normally do or am not allowed to do. Yesterday, I decided to cook bhaji with shalgom. This particular winter vegetable is normally used as an ingredient with fish or meat, not as a bhaji. My wife appreciated my cooking with a grain of salt— "delicious but it has too much oil." I have re-taken charge of cleaning, which I used to do while abroad. Watching movies is another popular pastime. Like many others, we re-watched the 2011 hit Contagion, which is very similar to what is happening in the world today. I also read Jajabor's epic Drishtipat after many decades.
Staying at home and the additional cleaning and apartment duties has not prevented me from my "other work". Many academics and researchers are taking the crisis as an opportunity to engage in research on the pandemic. As part of several virtual working groups, I have had the opportunity to connect with some very insightful people, which is furthering my thinking. Similarly, I am spending considerable time each day on conference calls with colleagues and friends from around the world who are concerned about the crisis and its potential responses. In one such meeting convened by a local group and attended by leading health specialists and some with close connections to the government's Covid-19 responses, it was abundantly clear that a grim future would be inevitable unless effective and decisive steps were taken without any further delay.
The additional time has allowed me to become more socially active on social media platforms as well, where my friends and I keep tabs on each other. I was recently surprised to know that some were still meeting up for breakfast and addas. I have recently written about this lacklustre response we are seeing to the requests of "social distancing" and how it remains "foreign" in our culture. Thinking further, I am also disturbed by the lukewarm actions taken by our mosques and the powerful Islamic Foundation in restricting congregations. When mosques in most Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia have forbidden congregations, we are continuing as if nothing or very little has happened—this can be fatally sloppy, careless and irresponsible. I may not be an authority on this, but wouldn't endangering the lives of your fellow musalli go against the grain of Islam? In times like these, the government must effectively lead and look beyond politics to make difficult choices.
Of late, the government has taken a number of positive steps. However, while the country is now in a near "lockdown" condition, why are we not calling it so? The government offices have been given chhuti, and to many, as we have seen, this is interpreted as "holiday". In such emergencies, it is always critical to be clear, transparent and decisive—call a spade, a spade! In such situations, it is always the poor who suffer most, particularly those who live hand-to-mouth and depend on meagre wages. The Prime Minister, in her address to the nation, announced a package of financial assistance for those who would be hard-hit by the crisis. These include an incentive package worth Tk 5000 crore to help the export-oriented sectors. This, as she said emphatically, would be used to pay for workers' wages. She also announced a few other measures for the rural poor. However, it is not clear whether these are new funds for the looming crisis or part of already existing social welfare schemes run by the government. If it is the former, we need to know how much money the government is committing and also make sure that these are efficiently used. If the latter, the government must commit new funds because the existing schemes reach only a section of the poor.
The news of the development of a new kit by Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK) was exciting. I started wondering what BRAC was doing. In any previous disasters, be it floods, cyclones, civil strife or refugee crisis, BRAC was always at the frontline. As part of this, BRAC and Channel-i have already initiated a joint communication programme on Covid-19. I understand the new Chairman of BRAC is also planning to convene a (virtual) meeting of leading NGOs to coordinate the response efforts.
The show of voluntarism across the country is also very encouraging. Many civil society groups are active in producing protective gear and creating awareness. I feel very proud that the alumni of my school in Sylhet have been extending such help to those needing them. There are many others like this.
We must also keep in mind our elders. Isolation, especially for them, can be debilitating. I have been trying to do my bit by chatting with elderly relatives and my own teachers. I recently called Professor MG Mostafa, a former Chairman of the Statistics Department of Dhaka University. His wife, also my teacher, passed away many years ago. He is alone in his apartment in Uttara, and I could sense how happy he was to receive such a call in these days of distress and uncertainties.
This is the time to stay at home, but we must remember to not shut all doors, figuratively speaking. We have to stay active and innovative and extend whatever assistance we can to face this unparalleled crisis together.
Mushtaque Chowdhury is adviser and founding Dean of James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University.