The Financial Express

Time to rethink strategy

Time to rethink strategy

Dhaka, the capital city of Bangladesh, is on the move again. The government has withdrawn most restrictions for the sake of 'saving livelihoods'.

All modes of transports are in operation. Transport owners have been asked to comply with certain health safety measures. Shops and markets are open again, but they have been asked to pull down their shutters at 4pm. The government offices are running with 25 per cent of their total manpower strength. Banks are operating full time and handling a large number of clients during business hours.

The level of compliance with safety measures in the case of passenger buses during the first five days has been mixed. Some buses were seen trying to comply with while others tended to be indifferent. Safety rules are largely flouted by passenger launches.

Why blame bus operators? A section of passengers are equally indifferent to the need for following the health safety measures---some of them do not bother to wear facemasks while others are wearing the same inappropriately.

Obviously, to ensure livelihoods, particularly of the daily wage earners and self-employed people, it is essential to get all economic activities back on track. But, quite frustratingly business activities were found to be subdued during the first five days since the withdrawal of restrictions on May 31 last.

Shopping malls and markets saw a small number of visitors. Moreover, businesses are also not comfortable with the business hours fixed by the authorities.

In fact, the rising number of Covid infection and death has created a sense of fear among most people. In such a situation, economic activities can hardly pick up.

It seems that timing of the relaxation of the restrictions has not been appropriate. Health experts were rather surprised by the government decision to allow businesses to operate and public transports to ply the streets at a time when the rates of both Covid infection and death were rising.

There was widespread fear about the rate of infection going up as the government allowed shops and markets to do business and people in their thousands to leave Dhaka on the occasion Eid-ul-fitr. 

The number of infections has already crossed the 50,000-mark. By the end of the current month, as the trend shows, could cross 0.1 million mark.

It is hard to say the government could handle the health emergency efficiently from the very beginning. Weaknesses like lack of coordination have surfaced very often in the case of management of the deadly disease and administrative restrictions to contain it.

Now, the government is planning a fresh move to contain the outbreak. It might divide the entire country into a number of zones, depending on the severity of the disease. The most severely affected areas would face a local-level 'lockdown'.

If that happens, entire Dhaka will be the top-most candidate for very strict lockdown. If Dhaka city itself is divided into zones, it will not serve any purpose.

Then again, if Dhaka is shut from the rest of the country, the purpose of removing restrictions on business activities and transport movement will not mean anything.

Dhaka is at the centre of all economic activities. At least, successive governments have made it to be so. Dhaka has nearly 50 per cent ( US$170 billion at 2020 nominal estimate) share in the country's GDP (US$348 billion).

Now the ball is in the government's court. It has to decide its next course  of action as far as containing the upswing in Covid-19 infections is concerned. If the lifting of the restrictions does fail to contribute to the goal of saving livelihoods, it would be rather appropriate to enforce stricter lockdown to save lives. The health sector has demonstrated its incapacity to manage an emergency situation even at its initial stage. The health management system might collapse entirely in the coming days in the wake of a full-blown pandemic.


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