Since March, Bangladesh has not only taken hit of an ongoing coronavirus pandemic that has affected lives and livelihoods of hundreds and thousands of people, but also experienced an unprecedented flood in haor areas, a devastating cyclone, and an ongoing flood inundating almost one-third of the country.
The country also continues to host a huge number of refugees. However, this coronavirus pandemic has once again exposed the fragility of the existing national and global systems. Countries with robust socio-economic systems have even stumbled and struggled to cope up with the dire situation; many countries have even failed. In this article, I shall try to focus on Bangladesh and dissect the situation as neutrally as possible unlike being absolutely pro or anti-government. I believe many of the questions have already been answered brilliantly by many a columnist and writer. As a student of disaster management, what I intend to do is to compare between expectations and reality - what went right for us, what went wrong and what could have been done for better. Before I proceed, I want to state that this pandemic is analogous to climate change. I make this unpopular claim because the impacts of climate change will also haunt us and destroy our system in no time. But until that point, when a larger portion of the world will be engulfed by seawater, the politicians, the policymakers, and the common people will continue to act as if nothing will happen. A small group of people will talk about it, but they will be outplayed in number and collective action as a problem will reaffirm the narrative – “not our problem.”
Not our problem, however, might turn into ‘Our Problem’ in the blink of an eye and we will suffer immensely and the probability that could have been avoided or mitigated via few pro-active measures, sacrifice and most importantly- an acknowledgement of the problem. I think in the case of this coronavirus pandemic, we probably witnessed a quite similar situation if not completely similar. When the coronavirus (Covid-19) spread in China, instead of taking necessary measures, we started making prophecies like - this virus won’t survive in hot and humid weather or this virus will get restricted within China and its adjacent countries only. I am not talking about Bangladesh only; educated people all around the world, such as doctors, politicians, health specialists and so on, whose opinions we tend to rely on, also made such ridiculous claims. The politicians remained and are still remaining in utter denial. Donald Trump’s speech and interviews are wonderful examples of what those statements look like. By not talking about the politicians of our country, I know I have played safe here but that’s exactly where we have got ourselves into.
After we understood that, this pandemic is not a hoax (!!) and is real we experienced a culture of indecision, lack of coordination and collaboration in administering the fight against this pandemic. We witnessed corruption not only during the distribution of the relief materials but a system of corruption that has helped criminals act like saviours. I have noticed different opinions on online and offline platforms, where it has been suggested that these few root level corrupt politicians are undermining the efforts and goodwill of the government. If that is the case, I believe the government could easily avoid all those anomalies by creating a database of targeted people and enlisting forms and amount of support either in cash or kind - making that information available and accessible to all. Government’s monitoring along with media reporting and investigation of the independent organizations like TIB, CPD could create a check and balance mechanism and steal from others' due share would not have been this easier since the number of eyes has been increased directly or indirectly.
Government has announced stimulus packages for many vulnerable sectors. Although there are debates and controversies concerning the distribution, we can appreciate them for their quick reaction and at least presenting something in front of us. The problem however is, we are yet to receive a comprehensive plan or directives from the government on what would be their course of actions if the pandemic goes on for say next 6 months; what if it goes on for another year, what do the government expect from the other stakeholders in terms of rebuilding the economy. The future seems very uncertain for now.
Let us not talk about the drama with testing because it would be too cliché and the readers probably have read about it in multiple other articles. I would rather want to highlight two micro-level impacts of the pandemic. First, it has taken a huge toll on the garment’s workers. I do not think they are treated as humans - otherwise, the authority could never choose to play with the lives of so many people by ordering them to join and then immediately altering their decision – as if it is that easy to travel during an ongoing pandemic let alone being exposed to the potential health hazards. My point, however, is since women are the dominant forces in the garments industries and for the first time, a woman or a girl growing up in a conservative society was breaking the shackle of patriarchy and was becoming self-reliant and independent, this pandemic has shattered that dream for many and uncertainty will not only haunt those female workers who were earning despite their wage being very minimal - but also challenge the narrative of women empowerment in Bangladesh to a larger extent.
The second thing, I would want to note is about the increasing number of new poor, thus an increase in the overall poverty rate. The number is significant. However, the point I want to make here is many of the people who have lost jobs, got those jobs at the very first place, through years of struggle, breaking the vicious trap of poverty. A pandemic, within five months, has not only undermined that man/woman’s effort of fifteen to twenty years but has sent him back to his previous state of being poor. More importantly, if the livelihoods of people are left unsecured, we probably have to rethink, reorganize and reshape our development agendas. Development agendas should not only make the tangible infrastructures like flyovers and bridges resilient, rather make the most vulnerable people’s lives and livelihoods resilient when faced with a perturbator or a stressor.
On this note, let me also say that many of the reputed business entities have shown tremendous commitment in fundraising and channelling their revenue to the Prime Minister’s Relief and Welfare Fund or in some other charity works during this hard time. They deserve appreciation and gratitude for their philanthropism. While they have donated money, they have also discharged a good number of their employees without any prior notice. The companies could not even provide for the bare minimums for their employees and their families who have worked extremely hard for their companies during normal time. Many of the authorities did not consider re-scaling allowances at different tiers or using money from the donation to retain employees because donations are more flamboyant than retaining employees. Now if you ask me- you have such a big mouth, are you willing to give up on your salary every month, that too during this difficult time? Well yes, since it is a difficult time, those of us who have a more secured inflow of cash, probably should be happy with such austerity measures. The amount again is not too big to bear. To me, if four persons working at the mid-tier of a company, university or a public office give their consent to take up two thousand BDT per month from their salaries, that may well be a decent amount to retain the employment of a security guard or a peon and at least provide the bare minimum for his/her families.
I will end my long, necessary yet unproductive rant by providing my remarks on the recent flood and cyclone in Bangladesh. Let me put the whole thing this way. People living in the coastal and flood-prone areas do not experience disasters in Bangladesh rather they “live with disasters”. Bangladesh regularly experiences flood. It sometimes gets terrible like the ones we have witnessed in 1988 or 1998 or the one that is ongoing now. Every current literature on disaster management in Bangladesh suggests that the system has experienced a paradigm shift and instead of a reactive response, a pro-active response system has been adopted. However, I disagree with the notion that the shift is quite successful. Every time it is the people, who take the hit and because of years of experience, these incidents of disasters have been quite normalised in their lives. Apart from building shelters and routine response operations with relief items and cash grants - substantial improvement in terms of livelihood diversification, strong social safety net activities or innovative programmes for capacity building - have not been adequately addressed by the government.
The last time we were hit by a super cyclone was in 2007. I wonder after 13 years of that devastating experience, have we learned any lesson? What are the real developments apart from increasing the number of volunteers of CPP raising awareness? Reducing the loss of lives cannot be the only metric of successful programming. Call it almighty’s blessing or luck, the majority of the recent super cyclones became weak either naturally or due to the lifesaving natural buffer - Sundarbans. I cannot imagine one of those cyclones, hitting the coastal belt with all its power! We also must note that this is not 1990s or 2000s, the standard of lifestyle has drastically improved. People have assets and wealth in their possessions. The government placed necessary service infrastructures even at the remotest corners of the country. It is therefore redundant to state that, the economic damage and loss, will be higher than ever before. Yes, we have limited resources and capacity. But, with that limited resources, capacity, and budget constraints, we were supposed to do far better than what we have done and are doing at the moment.
The age-old tendency within governments and political leaders to stay in denial and see every constructive criticism as anti-government will only further worsen the situation and make the whole system even more fragile. At the end of the day, all it boils down to is lack of good governance. The first step in the right direction to establish a system of good governance is to acknowledge and recognize problems as opposed to living in an imaginary world where no problem exists.
(The author is a lecturer at the Institute of Disaster Management and Vulnerability Studies, University of Dhaka and can be reached by email: [email protected])