COVID-19 is now a global pandemic. The devastation has been increasing during this course of time. It has spread to over 210 countries since it started in China. Although China could contain the catastrophic effect of COVID-19 within a couple of months, the worst victims are countries in Europe and North America. The devastation of COVID-19 has also affected countries in South Asia.
But in the last one and half months, almost all the South Asian countries including India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are fighting their best to minimise the number of infected patients and death tolls, as today’s number outscores yesterday's. It has become one of the greatest challenges for all governments in South Asia. Bangladesh has also has been struggling to contain the spread of COVID-19 since March 8, when the first patient was identified.
Despite tremendous efforts of the government, it seems that the spread of COVID-19 is very difficult to control, and its intensity must be reduced as soon as possible. To the best of our knowledge, there is no medicine or vaccine capable of containing the spread of COVID-19 or protecting people from infection. As per WHO directions, maintaining social distance and exercise of safer sanitation are only possible mechanisms to remain safe. But one can understand how difficult is to ensure social distancing in a country like Bangladesh. The high population density, together with a huge number of people living below the poverty line has made ensuring social distances difficult for the government. On the other hand, the government confronts a serious challenge to help the large group of people who maintain their livelihood, from hand to mouth.
As a containment strategy, the government has announced the closure of all public transport and offices, which continues to last until 5th May with the lockdown duration tough to predict. On the issue of helping people in need, the Government of Bangladesh, under Sheikh Hasina’s competent leadership, has been working intensely to ensure that every citizen receives appropriate assistance during this period. They are committed to ensuring that nobody is left behind in obtaining government support.
Despite various initiatives, the main challenge confronting the government is ensuring social distancing. On observing general people’s movement, I feel that the people of Bangladesh have yet to comprehend COVID-19’s devastating effect. The civil administration, with assistance from law enforcing agencies and army, has been working relentlessly on the streets to make ensure people stay home to reduce the possibility of the infection spread. We are all aware that Bangladesh has entered stage 4 of COVID-19. Therefore the real challenge for us all is to stop its spread within the community.
Mass gathering has become a major concern for the spread. We have seen people on the streets, moving about, and idly chatting at tea stalls. When challenged by law enforcing agencies, many of them were argued that they do not feel good staying indoors for a long time and are even bored. How can one believe that people could behave irresponsibly despite the publicity given on COVID-19’sdevastating effect by government departments and NGOs.
For the last 4 months, we have seen many superpowers of the world struggle to control the spread of COVID-19. Despite having developed medical facilities they could not control the death toll of their citizens. Even in the US, thousands have died and the number of infected patients has crossed several hundred thousand. If this is the situation of developed countries one can imagine what would happen in a country like Bangladesh.
Having said that, the pertinent question is what will happen in our country and how we could ensure people stay at home to reduce the risk of spreading the infection. There is a political economy of social distancing. As mentioned earlier, there is a group of people coming out of their homes for no reason. At the same time, there is another large group of people who are compelled to come out in search of livelihood options. For instance, we have seen the garment workers often take to the streets to demand their salaries. Although the BGMEA claims that salaries of 80% of its employees’ have been paid, media sources reveal that several thousands of employees are yet to receive wages, leaving them no choice but to get on the street. Social distancing does not matter to them.
There is another group of people working in the informal sector. Their number is as high as over five million. They mainly work as day labourers, construction workers, rickshaw pullers, housemaids and so on. They are currently the most vulnerable groups. If they do not get government support they will take to the street.
There is another dimension to this problem as most of these people live in urban slums. Very recently, Nobel laureates Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee in their writing in the Indian Express suggested that a bolder social transfer could only ensure the smooth lockdown in India. They also apprehended that if COVID-19 enters urban slums, the government would find it very difficult to contain its spread as people in slums live in congested areas with no or very little sanitation facilities. Therefore, it is a difficult task to ensure social distancing. Several thousands of slum people live in the major cities of the country. In addition to them, there is a huge group of people who continue to live as day labourers in rural areas. So, social distancing could only be ensured through the fair and appropriate distribution of assistance to these people.
In the light of this, the Prime Minister declared around Tk 100000 crore (0.01 billion taka) rescue packages to overcome the catastrophic effect of COVID-19. These packages include some incentives for export-oriented industries, such as the RMG, agriculture and rebuilding the economy: post-COVID-19. In addition to these allocations, the government decided to increase the coverage of social safety net benefits that would continue for the next six months. They are preparing the list of distressed people so that support could be sent to their doorsteps. The government is also actively considering making direct cash transfers to the needy. If these initiatives can be implemented properly we would be able to keep the people at home. Only then the spread of COVID-19 will decline.
At the same time, the government requires to remain careful in ensuring fairness in the distribution of these assistances. In the meantime, we have seen a limited number of cases of irregularities where people’s representatives have been found to steal relief materials. In the meantime, the government has taken strong action against several peoples’ representatives, and we have also seen many dedicated peoples’ representatives who work day and night to ensure fair relief distribution. This is the crucial aspect of our fight against COVID-19. If the needy do not receive proper support, social distancing or staying at home would not matter to them.
Law enforcing agencies must, in addition to government support, take strong action against those who are moving around without valid reason. They cannot be contained without the use of the force. Many organisations, however, may raise their voices against the actions of the law enforcing agencies from a human rights perspective. But, this is not the time to care for such criticism. These reckless people do not have any right to push the majority of the country’s citizens to risk.
Despite some limitations, we will have to realise the political economy of social distancing and work together to fight against COVID-19. Else, an uncertain future will be awaiting us.
The writer is a Professor of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi.