Author: Mashuk Ahmed Khan
L.L.M.; M.Phil; M.A.; PG.Dip.; MCIPD
A Legal Academic; and
Member of: The University of Oxford Philosophical Society; and
The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development:
Bangladesh was never struck with a calamitous event of such magnitude since its birth; nor had any of its government in the past ever experienced or undergone such unbearable pressures of the kind, precipitated upon Sheik Hasina, by the virulent strain of Coronavirus (COVID-19) on our nation. It was almost like a Big’Bang’ that the threat of COVID-19 pushed the nation to global isolation and its individual citizens to home-quarantine, self-isolation etc., with national lockdown. Every shop, households, public and private organisations, markets, educational institutions, and most of the social transactions have come under siege; in response to national exigencies, to prevent the virus from spreading. The country’s economy is in a state of mortal stagnation; the individual citizens are bemused, and trembling by the fear of catching the deadly virus. Hitherto it is unbeknown to us the extent of its proliferation nationwide, in the absence of proper and adequate availability of medical resources – necessary to carry out a national scanning process.
As of 29 March 2020 the government of Bangladesh has confirmed testing only one thousand one hundred eighty five (1,185) samples, of which there were forty eight (48) confirmed cases, fifteen (15) recoveries, and five (5) deaths in the country (source: Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, Bangladesh). This rate of infection poses a serious threat to our nation as 48 confirmed cases out of a random sampling of 1,185 people means that there may be four thousand fifty (4,050) positive cases in every one hundred thousand (1Lac) people tested. This figure with multiplier effect over 170 million (17Crore) plus people may well supersede the human catastrophe by a number of times – caused by the dropping of atom bombs – on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, in 1945. The negligible number (1,185) of tests carried out so far, indicates, that individual tests for COVID-19 is likely to remain a virtual impossibility for most Bangladeshi citizens to receive in real terms. Moreover, economically, it is too onerous a provision, for the government to make or digest; considering the size of our population and the limited resources available at its disposal to fight this pandemic. Hence, the real infection and mortality rates of our population by COVID-19 will never be known.
The atypical measures so far imposed on the nation could in reality – only hopefully -mitigate the situation; that is to slowdown the rate of infections over a longer period of time, rather than a sharp and uncontrollable peak in infections. Thus, it begs the question: is our nation ultra virus? The limited number of Coronavirus cases so far been reported, appears to be somewhat inaccurate reflection of, the potential and/or actual infection level extant in our country. The virus suppression strategy implemented by the government can be said, is intended, to stop the pandemic in its track, at least in the short term. Thereby it is a tacit recognition that the peak rate of infection will not be flattened; rather, it will be shifted to later date. Political rhetoric, usually, overwhelms the true account of our demography.
However, given the morbidity and high mortality rates around the world from this deadly virus, it (COVID-19) cannot be ignored or taken lightly. A serious attempt by the government to contain the virus was necessary with all practical measures such as: medical provisions (?), social distancing, social awareness and severe restrictions on peoples’ freedom of movement, and the use of military forces, to enforce the suppression – as the best deterrent and economically viable options; considering the socio-economic damages that could follow from the potentially unmeasured proliferation of the COVID-19 in Bangladesh. The Bangladesh government has augmented the necessary measures, to protect the nation from this global pandemic – having finally severed itself – from the rest of the world. It all seems possible and as effective as most of us may perceive at first sight, without feeling much soaring effect of its continuance, in the short term. But how long would it be possible for a least developed developing economy to sustain the impact of this national siege with the aim of suppressing the pandemic within its vast population for an uncertain and/or prolonged period of time? The presumed incubation period for COVID-19 of 14 days or 21 days clock setting and individuals’ refuge to home-quarantine, and/or self-isolation caused by the national lockdown, albeit, does not guarantee a full protection; yet certainly, is the most effective method of reducing the risk of spreading the virus. Sadly, there is no other choice for us in this dire situation except for biting the bullet. Prevention is definitely better than cure if it can be achieved by whatever degree.
The government ought to be mindful that there is an underlying threat of severe repercussions likely to surface from the approach taken by it, in terms of those people whose very existence is dependent upon ‘hand-to-mouth’ provisions. The resultant suffering from the national siege could extend to starvation, malnutrition, and other diseases emanating from it; could follow with child mortalities, and deaths of the infirm, vulnerable, and malnourished elderly poor people. Nobody knows, as yet, the extent of COVID-19 proliferation in this densely populated terrain – to be able to suggest – that we are a low risk nation as compared to other nations around the world. This airborne virus has a lethal character of sitting on metal and other hard objects for a length of time that could, upon contact, infect people instantaneously. That surely makes one wonder, are we bubbling through this pandemic, or is the bubble going to burst at some point; God forbid, if it does – then what? And if it does not then we are in remission by virtue of divine blessings. Unlike the rich economies the task for Bangladesh government is multi-fold; and the most grilling one is how to protect the lives of those who could be affected NOT by the COVID-19 but from the WANT of ‘food’ as a result of ‘unavoidable’ imposition of emergency measures.
Bangladesh had gone through very difficult times on a number of occasions since its independence; to name a few: the 1974 acute famine, with officially estimated (not actual) death tolls of twenty seven thousand ( 27,000) people (unofficial estimate 1.5 million); and the devastating Cyclone in 1991 which swept away one hundred forty thousand (140,000) lives (official estimate). In reality nobody actually knew how many people perished away on those occasions except for the politically censored figures as stated above. The post-famine and post-cyclone mortalities and the suffering of the poor people were beyond measure in those years. Yet with severe economic difficulties Bangladesh has managed to survive, notably with the benefit of population growth, despite being burdened with the costs of rottenness from booming institutionalised corruption. The painful decline in the number of population by God’s act and/or by ongoing political slaughtering of human lives, is never felt in our bones; apparently due to high birth rates, reduction in child mortality, increased average longevity of individual citizens; rising food production, improved sanitation, and private health care facilities established around the country.
Our history is a mixture of pain and suffering, and survival. That provided our nation with a challenging faculty of minds to face anything however unthinkable, and swallow the costs of it – as unavoidable divine retribution for our sins. The unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic is one such example, for which neither the nation was ready, nor could have been ready at all, to fight back. The nation cannot fight the nature; instead it seeks forgiveness and mercy of the almighty God with recourse to nation-wide healing prayers. Such beliefs and understanding of the general public in the absence of any sustainable provisions being provided for them, by the government, gives them a sense of comfort, even with their growling stomachs; and for the government, a huge relief from ensuing public pressure. Therefore it must not go without saying that our government is somewhat ‘at ease’ unlike other governments in the developed economies in this global crises. Does it then mean that the government is exempt from delivering its positive obligations to its citizenry in their best interest? The forthright answer to this – is No…………!
What is most worrying is that how long this national siege could be sustained in order to reduce the risks of spreading of the COVID-19 and the resulting deaths from its proliferation? While the government actions are mimicking western-style approach to combating the virus, it must and ought to have greater concern to find ways and means for the viability and sustainability of the measures taken. It is not about law enforcement but the livelihood of Deen Majoor and the survival of their family members at stake. We do not want the repetition of 1974 famine; it could be catastrophic as the population has more than doubled since then. The provision of minimum amount of Dal-Chal for the needy shall be the most essential and powerful tool for our nation’s fight against the COVID-19. Otherwise, thousands of people will die from hunger and its associated affects on them as aforesaid; which in essence, may override the mortality rate from this pandemic itself. And consequently the blames for those foreseeable deaths will be shifted politically to COVID-19 as a face-saving exercise for the government’s failure to make the basic food provisions for the needy.
The irony of the situation is; in this plight of national emergencies, unlike past occasions, we have to march alone this time to fight our cause owing to lack of much international support. Every nation is struggling to make its end meet. The small cash hand-outs from the international community such as the European Union and the US, if any, would merely amount to a drop in the ocean. Nevertheless, we must be grateful to all the donor countries for their benevolence in any case.
The 31 point Plan (‘Plan’) as outlined by the Prime Minister Sheik Hasina on 2 April 2020, appears to encompass many important areas of concern. However, it grossly fell short of reasonably adequate provision for statutory food rationing; and any employment protection for the urban proletariat (industrial labour) and other workers around the country. The 1974 food rationing was flawed and not inclusive at all, as it did not extend to rural Bengal, that caused higher number of deaths from hunger which could have been avoided. We must learn from our mistakes in the past and not repeat the same again.
Therefore, the government must ensure that any provisions for food and medicine must reach proportionately to those people in need throughout the country, and not confined mainly to conurbation areas of Bangladesh. The government will be in breach of Article 3 (individuals’ right to life) of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights 1948, unless reasonable provisions for food are being made by the government for those in need to prevent deaths from starvation. It should be noted that each point of Sheik Hasina’s Plan ended with added emphasis: things ‘not to do’, things ‘to be done’ or ‘must be done’; but it does not say how and when? It is also silent as to what funds and/or statutory instruments available to meet those targets? It is an unequivocal failing of the government not to come up with an emergency budget that is necessary to support its Plan to be implemented. Without the allocation of appropriate funds to each component of the Plan, the Plan remains largely unrealistic and flawed.
In light of the need for legislative intervention, it is respectfully recommended, that the Prime Minister Sheik Hasina should consider and adopt, if not all, at least some of the following measures in its emergency programme:
- Enact emergency legislation to protect employees from unfair treatment by their employers which may include the following.
- not to dismiss employees by their employers because of and during the national lockdown.
- employers must pay their employees their full wages/salary while lockdown continues with a maximum threshold period.
- employers must not withhold payment of their employees’ wages/salary, including any bonus and/or overtime or holiday payment.
- employers to reduce the wage/salary of their employees by one half (50%) if the lockdown continues beyond maximum threshold period (b above); and extend the reduced pay up to a reasonably specified period.
- a contribution from the government; say 20% of the 50% of unworked wage/salary paid to employees by their employers beyond the specified period (d above) if the lockdown persists for a prolonged period.
- employers must not force or induce their employees or others to work until the lockdown is lifted (Tea Eestate labourers are reported to have been forced to work in breach of national lockdown).
- government should empower Magistrates to impose fine and/or imprison employers and/or their agent(s), for breach of lockdown by forcing or inducing employees to work. Any sanction must be proportionate to the breach.
- impose fixed penalties on employees who work in breach of the lockdown proportionate to their breach and financial means.
- Set-up government assisted Food-bank in every ward of towns and cities, and at Union level to encourage public to come forward and donate food stuff in the food bank.
- Set-up government Food Depots in towns, cities, and Union level to deliver food; and issue ration cards to prevent malpractice by the recipients.
- Government must invite small to large organisations including all financial organisations to lend their support to the government in this difficult time of national crises. (Noticeably big Corporations are not coming forward to sufficiently fulfil their Corporate Social Responsibilities).
- Cut-down salaries of the government employees by say 5% of the salary of those earning TK. 40,000 – 79,000 a month, and 10% of the salary of those earning TK.80,000 or more, to fund government food rationing programme as long as the emergency continues. The deducted sums to be transferred from its source forthwith, electronically, to the government’s emergency food rationing fund.
- Order employers of Private organisations to deduct 5% of the salaries of their personnel earning TK.40,000 – 79,000 a month; and 10% of the salaries of those earning TK.80,000 or more to support government food rationing programme as long as the emergency continues. The deducted sums must be transferred from its source forthwith, electronically, to the government’s emergency food rationing fund.
Further, the circumstances warrant mentioning here that Prime Minister Sheik Hasina needs our collective support. It is not the time for political follies; it is time for national unity to extricate ourselves from this predicament and misfortune befallen us, and the Mankind, at large. We must do everything together as a nation to contain this highly contagious virus from spreading and not let it turn into a national plague due to our negligence or recklessness; which could result in shocking deaths of an unimaginable number of our population at an uncontrollable force.
Finally it is endorsed here, that the politicians and government ministers ought to be sensible, courteous, and must refrain from making foul comments; and be dutiful to the public – not sympathetic. Ministers have no right to utter nonsensical statements, and mistreat, belittle, or upset Bangladeshi expatriates whether they are Italian, British or US and so on; doing so would amount to abuse of position. Expatriates are incessantly making enormous financial contributions to Bangladesh’s moribund economy. To conclude, I quote: ‘a government of the people, by the people and for the people’. Lincoln’s Gettysburg address (November 1863) reinforces the Russeauvian notion of Social Contract between the governors and the governed. A government is made up of people who come from the people.
May God bless the Mankind!
3 April 2020