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COVID-19 impact and responses

Rayhan Ahmed Topader:



A popular conception is that coronavirus pandemic has been wreaking havoc all across the world. As many as 219 countries have come under its relentless attacks and both the number of the infected and the death toll are on the increase with every passing day. Significantly, the highly advanced countries in the West including the United States of America and the United Kingdom are among the worst hit. Italy and Spain led the pack in terms of infection and death for quite sometime and then the USA and the UK replace them.The world is in unprecedented economic turmoil. The post-coronavirus would-be recession may surpass the great depression of the 1930s and the turbulent economy after World War II. Now the question is, how will we overcome the crises? After the coronavirus pandemic, our growing economy may face a tremendous and unimaginable shock. The on-going problems will intensify because of a food crisis, unemployment, liquidity crisis, transportation problems, remittance shortage, negative export position, the shutdown of industries and so on. Are we capable and ready enough to face all these sudden impediments? We believe we can do it and have the courage to face a tough time. We went through 1971 and came out victorious.

But now more than ever, we need to work united-irrespective of the differences in opinions, religions, and political parties.

Since the liberation of Bangladesh back in 1971, no government has ever faced this kind of situation in the country.This is an uncharted territory for the governments of all coronavirus affected nations around the world, not just for the Awami League government of Bangladesh. Political observers believe that the party that once led the Independence War of Bangladesh and eventually the emergence of a new nation on Indian subcontinent some 49 years ago will also be able to lead the country with success through the current global pandemic of coronavirus. In this battle against COVID-19 which is killing dozens of people and infecting thousands more each day in the country, Bangladesh, however, is not alone. All three heavily populated countries of the subcontinent India, Pakistan and of course Bangladesh are stuck exactly in an identical situation. All three countries have been experiencing rising numbers of deaths and infection for the last few weeks. Health care facilities of all three countries are already overwhelmed with COVID-19 patients; yet new patients with infection keep coming every day. And all three countries are also facing the same challenge of reopeningtheir economies sooner rather than later. As a result of steadily growing numbers of deaths and infection, India, a country of 1.3 billion people has now moved up to the seventh position on the list of the hardest-hit nations in the world.

Bangladesh and Pakistan have climbed to the 18th and 21st spots respectively on the listfor the same reason of a spike in the numbers of deaths and new cases of infection. In view of the current situation, India has extended its countrywide lockdown through June 30 and most state governments are expected to follow through the central government’s plan. But at the same time, the Indian government has announced that it will gradually reopen India’s giant economy and restore normalcy to public life also in phases. The industry employs 4.1 million workers, mostly female, and was forced to cease operations during the government-ordered lockdown. Pushed by various garment industry lobbyists who feared orders could be diverted to Vietnam, thousands of clothing factories reopened on Apr. 26, flouting concerns about transmission of the virus. Most western high-street retailers selling Bangladeshi apparel demand deferred payment of up to 180 days, while factories carry a raw material liability of nearly $2 billion. With no clear visibility of orders to come, goods stuck in foreign ports, and buyers canceling finished goods, we have no assurances that we can depend on,” Huq told Nikkei. The sector that has long been the largest manufacturing employer in Bangladesh is teetering on the edge of a crisis. Foreign remittances, the second largest driver of the economy, are also threatened. Last year, over 10 million Bangladeshis working overseas sent home more than $18 billion-about 6% of GDP. With the virus and collapsing oil prices.

The World Bank expects remittances to fall back over 20% to about $14 billion this year. The International Monetary Fund has forecast that Bangladesh’s GDP growth will plunge to 2% this fiscal year, its deepest dive in decades. The reduced growth and businesses damaged by the virus could push millions back into poverty. Since 2000, more than 25 million people have been lifted out of the classification, but a quarter of Bangladeshis remain severely impoverished. Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has called on Indians to maintain social distancing and other protocols more sincerely as the Indian economy opens up. India’s small markets have already opened and public transport services resumed on a limited scale and the government is saying it will also allow opening of hotels, restaurants, malls and places of worship from June 8.Meanwhile, even though the coronavirus situation in Pakistan is quite similar as in India with continuously rising numbers of deaths and new cases of infection, the Pakistan government has taken an entirely different route. It has already lifted almost all restrictions imposed during the lockdown and Prime Minister Imran Khan has asked his countrymen to “live with the virus. The Pakistan government has removed the lockdown principally to prevent an economic meltdown. The country has also decided to open up its multibillion dollar tourism industry but cinemas, theaters and schools will remain closed.

After a complete shutdown of offices, both government and private, and all kinds of public transport services in the country since late March, the government reopened them nervously from May 31st under a set of health guidelines. This measure for partial lifting of lockdown was taken considering the suffering of millions of people, who survive on their daily earnings. Even though small markets in Dhaka and elsewhere in the country have already opened, cinemas, theaters, restaurants educational institutions and many other places are still under lockdown in Bangladesh. The government has partially reopened air travel on domestic routes but hasn’t taken any decision yet to restart international flights. As a result, hundreds of people whorecently came to Bangladesh for a visit are still stuck in this country. The step to ease restrictions even after a lot of serious discussions has put the government of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in a situation which no government had ever faced before in the country. The challenge facing the government now is basically twofold: keeping the spread of coronavirus in check even after easing restrictions and opening up the nation’s economy and restoring normalcy to public life. In line with measures taken by the governments of many countries around the world, the Bangladesh government too has also made wearing facemasks outdoor mandatory in the country. The government has also made it compulsory to follow the health guidelines in every situation and everywhere in Bangladesh. None is allowed outside home from 8 pm through 6 am except for an emergency.

Punitive measures will be taken for violating government directives to wear facemasks outdoor at all times and follow the state-issued health guidelines in every situation. Anyone not wearing facemask outside his or her home or violating health guidelines anywhere in Bangladesh now faces up to six-month prison time or a fine of up to Tk 100,000 or both under sections 24 and 25 of the Communicable Diseases Act,2018. As Bangladesh opens up, chances of spreading coronavirus from person to person increase. Resumption of inter-district public transport services has already increased that risk. Social distancing, as reported by local media, is not being maintained at various bus stops and launch terminals in the country which can potentially increase spread of the virus. In this situation, country’s electronic media should broadcast emergency health bulletin on importance and requirement of social distancing several times daily to create public awareness. At a time when the confirmed cases of coronavirus have already crossed a deeply troubling 50,000 mark with the daily death toll going up to 40, all these steps as well as punitive measures taken by the government to curb the spread of the virus are absolutely justified. But the success of all these measures will largely depend on cooperation of the members of the public and enforcement of law. Bangladesh, however, is not known to be a very law-abiding nation. Two main reasons are responsible for this. First, there is no strict enforcement of law due to several factors and secondly many people have a common tendency to flout it.

However, in the current extraordinary situation where the question of people’s life and death is involved, the government must show that it is capable enough of enforcing law-especially to save lives and also the country.

Writer and Columnist