Magical thinking in the time of Covid-19
Over the past few weeks, I have heard variations of "I don't know why but I don't think Bangladesh will be affected by Covid-19 in the way that other countries have been." That obvious kind of magical thinking, expressed by a friend, an uncle, and even my mother, is almost endearing; for, it is so clearly an expression of love. And fear. It makes you want to hug them and say, "yes, me too."
But it's hard not to fret, especially about the working class who always bear the brunt of disaster. Workers in the global South form the backbone upon which global capitalism is built and billionaires are made. Yet, it is those workers who are treated like cattle that capitalists feel free to herd at will.
It is perhaps no surprise, then, that amid the coronavirus shutdown that the government of Bangladesh consciously termed a "holiday," presumably to prevent panic and hysteria, workers, mostly migrant, left Dhaka for their homes in the village. In direct conflict with the government's shutdown protocol, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) asked workers to return to work, threatening their mostly female workers with nonpayment of their wages and termination if they did not return to work. That absent transportation, hundreds of these workers were forced to walk back to the city on foot, is a gendered human rights concern. That BGMEA, upon admonishment by civil-society, withdrew the directive to return to work, expecting workers to then walk back to their village homes, is classic class oppression. That the Home Minister then asked law enforcement to prevent people from entering the city to aide BGMEA's mission is neoliberalism 101. Indeed, worker exploitation and oppression are inherent to neoliberalism.
That amid this fiasco, workers received limited messaging about the deadly virus and that no effort was made to keep workers safe from it as they travelled back to Dhaka make clear that there is no concern for their lives. The only concern is for the labour that they can collectively provide to fill the pockets of those who "own" them. This is not merely irresponsible; this is gross negligence on the part of BGMEA, signalling an enduring modus operandi akin to slavery. If these workers die in the coming weeks, who will take responsibility?
This debacle regarding garment workers in Bangladesh is but one of a host of other problems that are specific to the global South: inaccurately reported numbers of Covid-19 related deaths; growing stigma resulting in rejection of patients suspected of being infected with Covid-19; and, inadequate measures to prevent spread of the virus.
We already know that social distancing, or physical distancing as we've been calling it to centre social solidarity amid the crisis, is a luxury that few can afford. Further, it appears that such protocols may deepen existing social and economic disparities, particularly in countries where much of the population live in informal settlements or slums. Physical distancing, as such, has to be applied differently in densely populated locations: not individually, but by communities—bostis,paras, mohollas, neighbourhoods, even villages, if need be, to curb transmission from one locality to another. Each unit, ideally, should have its own designated clinic for Covid-19 patients, which, absent reliable testing, should treat everyone with Covid-19 symptoms as infected, trace their contacts, and quarantine everyone, while those with severe symptoms should be hospitalised. Testing has been unreliable in many locations and serve as a warning for countries that are behind in the pandemic, as they plan to prevent transmission of infection.
That raises the question of preparedness. Bangladesh's medical and health infrastructure remains underequipped to handle a pandemic. It should be stated unequivocally that Bangladesh does not have the capacity to treat severe cases of Covid-19 given the nation's limited number of ventilators they have—one for every 340,000. Clearly, there is a need to acquire ventilators. Multilateral aid agencies and international organisations, the United Nations in particular, that forced countries like Bangladesh to adopt neoliberal policies (such as, privatisation and deregulation) must bear responsibility for providing assistance to ramp up medical infrastructure to tackle this pandemic. That the World Bank has approved USD 100 million in financing for Bangladesh to respond to Covid-19 is a promising start.
On an individual level, wearing masks is a practical way to curb transmission. Those who can isolate themselves should do so as not to unnecessarily burden the health care system. Employers are particularly well-placed to use their discretion to ensure that non-essential work that can be done from home is done from home. Amid limited supply of surgical masks, the Center for Disease Control suggests the use of cloth masks for use in public spaces. But concerns about correct use remain—such masks need to be disinfected after each use, which depends on availability of water and sanitation. People need to be made aware of these risks. Educating people about Covid-19 and preventive measures could still go a long way toward minimising transmission of the virus. One of the key problems with the way the Bangladesh government handled the otherwise effective shutdown was that decisions (such as announcing a holiday) were made seemingly without informing citizens about Covid-19 and the extent to which they were vulnerable to it.
As the number of Covid-19 cases surge, a crisis looms.
At the time of this writing, three districts and over 50 neighbourhoods across Dhaka have been identified as hotspots and are now under police enforced lockdown. Amid limited testing, we know that this kind of lockdown will have little effect; for the spread to stop, the lockdown has to be enforced across the country, while keeping essential services open.
It is time that Bangladesh seek help from the regional hegemon, India, a country that has long benefited from Bangladesh's friendship (the Rampal Coal Plant in the Sundarbans come to mind). Given that Bangladesh is surrounded by India on all three sides, it is also in India's interest to make sure Bangladesh effectively addresses the crisis of Covid-19. Mahindra, an Indian company, is making ventilators; Bangladesh should leverage their friendship to acquire said ventilators. But, given how India has been dealing with the crisis within India—by utilizing nationalistic tropes of unity, banging pots and pans, and lighting diyas, while starving its poor and beating members of marginalised communities amid a lockdown—it's not clear if India will be able to rise to the occasion and be the true regional superpower that it postures as and save the region from disease and destruction. Perhaps the only viable and able bilateral aid donor at this time is China.
It is when we find ourselves backed up against a wall that we start indulging in magical thinking. I've done it, so have others, and none of it is because we don't know how to think critically. It is because when the world seemingly closes in on us, and our brains start to spin, our hearts try to stabilise us, even if in the form of false hope. And there are a lot of (false) hope out there. A study by Qasim Bukhari and Yusuf Jameel, and another by Chin and colleagues, suggest that the virus may slow down in humid or hot conditions. Another study suggests that the BCG vaccine may be protective against Covid-19. These are all possibilities, not proofs. The BCG vaccine is currently undergoing clinical trials as a cure for Covid-19 (as are others). Until trials reveal conclusive positive results about the efficacy of possible cures, this much is clear: there is no magic potion that will make the virus disappear. Not yet.
As such, these studies, while inspiring magical thinking (and perhaps even hope), cannot become excuses for further inaction and shirking of responsibilities—effective public health interventions are required to slow down transmission of Covid-19 till we have effective tests and, importantly, vaccines. Said interventions must include direct cash transfers and rationing to ensure food security for workers. Famines occur when the haves hoard everything, leaving nothing for the have-nots. Let us not do that, even if the current crisis (understandably) triggers war-time and famine related trauma. Finally, Bangladesh should not take a page out of the United States' playbook and roll out a plan that primarily benefits corporations and industrialists as if trickle-down economics hasn't already been debunked.
Nadine Shaanta Murshid, PhD, is Assistant Professor, School of Social Work, University at Buffalo, Buffalo, NY.