Social distancing under scrutiny  

Shihab Sarkar   | Monday, 18 May 2020

The fear that had haunted many over the frenzied rush of Eid shoppers proved nearly baseless. At least for now. This is because the Eid shopping has not yet seen the feverish turnout of shoppers at the popular shopping spots. It means the scourge of the spread of coranavirus could somehow be tackled at Eid markets.

Moreover, a sense of great relief has begun comforting people: the dreadful prospect of uncontrollable shoppers flouting social distancing and other rules could at last be kept at bay. In the other years, the second fortnight of the Ramadan witnesses every shopping corner of Dhaka filled with Eid shoppers. Frantic groups of people, mostly with families, are found rushing from one spot to another -making their way through Dhaka's notorious Eid-time gridlocks.This scene is noticeably absent in the coronavirus-hit Dhaka.

Meanwhile, a number of large shopping malls in the capital have decided not to open their centres this Eid. All these spectacles have made the authorities and the worried segments of society feel upbeat about a semblance of success in the containment of the virus.

However, it's too early to feel relieved. Many intending shoppers might be observing the situation. They are set to come out after discovering an atmosphere conducive to lengthy shopping. Traditionally, Dhaka's Eid shoppers have long been composed of varied sections; each of them has its unique style of shopping. Some start visiting the markets a week before the start of Ramadan. They do so, apparently to avoid crowd and congestion. Some others visit the markets and malls when the shopping spree reaches its zenith. It is presumed they love to do the shopping amid people.

A large portion of their Eid festivity lurks in the pre-festival shopping. The residents of Old Dhaka love to come out in the Eid market the day before the festival -precisely after the sighting of the new moon of Shawal. They continue to move from shop to shop and purchase their festival items until late into the night before the Eid day.

With a significant part of the Eid shopping yet to be in place in full swing, the spectre of Eid shoppers swarming on the limited number of markets, now open, still looms. This year, the cases of shoppers blatantly disregarding Covid-19 social distancing have become pervasive. Beginning from improvised markets, footpaths to a lot of public places, the assemblage of people is business as usual. Few can tell them from the spectacles found in the previous years.

To observe it scathingly, and telling without mincing words, the lackadaisical maintenance of social distance is feared to spell doom for the country. The most frightening aspect of the episode is the imperative of keeping a specific distance from each other is being flouted in careless abandon in the crowded urban areas. The barrage of awareness campaigns by the government and dozens of private agencies appears to be falling on deaf ears. Doomsayers might notice in this current mass-level violation a compulsive wish to invite the agents of a greater catastrophe, now in the making.

Unlike in many other countries, including neighbouring India, Bangladesh has a milder form of the restrictive measures in place - shutdown, in place of lockdown. Lockdowns stringently prohibit movement of people. Lots of corona-ravaged cities around the world remained under this foolproof restrictive measure for over two months. The residents of these cities voluntarily confined themselves inside their homes. These people have lately been seen reaping the benefits of their home quarantines. With remarkable drops in Covid-19 deaths and cases, over a dozen big cities have eased their lockdowns.

A lot of people in the country are of the view that Bangladesh ought to have switched over to 'lockdowns' from the softer 'shutdowns' on discovering the ineffectiveness of the latter. The harsh step taken would also have been commensurate with the increases in the corona spread.

As has been seen in the outbreak of epidemics in the modern times, alongside treatment the states concerned remain also focused on making people aware of the diseases. They lay stress on both the epidemics' spread and containment measures. Virologists and pandemic experts would instantly cite the examples of the ways which the Sub-Saharan African countries adopted to check the ravages of the dreadful Ebola fever in the region. As per the directives of international health agencies, the affected countries eventually put in place strict preventive measures. Although scores of people died in the Ebola pandemic in its early stage due to chaotic treatment facilities, the authorities later swung into aggressive actions. Ebola virus is not airborne like Covid-19, at least in proximity. It is transmitted through person-to-person contact after humans get infected by the virus present in certain wild animals. In spite of this fact, the directive to maintain distance between persons was enforced strictly.

The ferocity with which the deadly Ebola fever had begun spreading in the vulnerable countries, it was feared to unleash bouts of great calamity on the whole Sub-Saharan region. Thanks to the unalloyed dedication of doctors, medics and volunteers, as well as unremitting awareness-building campaigns, the scourge could finally be overpowered. The steps taken by the Ebola-struck countries may not be applicable to Bangladesh due, mainly, to its population density and slapdash healthcare management.

A sizeable segment of the persons dealing with the corona pandemic's containment appear to remain oblivious to the great imperative: Unless a stern enforcement of social distancing could be made to be in place, chances are little for the country to bask in post-Covid-19 normalcy anytime soon. The corona-battered cities around the world which have been allowed to open lately have had to pass the hard test of endurance of being locked down in home quarantines.

Few in the Bangladesh cities have any idea about these self-confinements. The overseas city dwellers rightfully deserve their reward in the form of breathing in the open. Seeing the TV footage of markets teeming with Eid-shoppers might prompt many to brace for a bleaker turn of the pandemic in the post-festival days.