The Financial Express

Of pandemic-time volunteerism

Of pandemic-time volunteerism

The fear of being infected by the Covid-19 virus allegedly carried by the body of a dead novel corona patient was a dreaded feeling just over a month ago. The living patient would be avoided even by the relatives and medical persons without safety gear. The lifeless body of a novel corona patient would evoke a dread. Lots of people dying from the pandemic disease were buried without the ritual washing, white shroud even in the case of Muslims and funeral formalities.

In this veritably unbearable plight, sections of daredevil youths began coming forward in performing the last rites of the Covid patients. They can be compared with the death-defying people who were seen a few years ago burying the patients dying from the terrible and highly contagious Ebola fever in western Africa. Both the groups of people were driven by the spirit of volunteerism.

When it comes to dedicating oneself to the service of humanity during catastrophic times, certain groups would be found in every society down the ages. They appear as if from nowhere to save crisis-ridden humans, when their close community members leave them behind.

Unlike in the developed Western and other regions, the concept of volunteerism in South Asia's Bengal is quite different. It has been so for nearly a century. Traditional volunteerism and the combined efforts to stand by calamity-stricken humanity are two different and distinct areas. Of the two activities, coming forward to help the poor with money, food and materials needed for a decent life has been found in the Bengal society for ages.

Alongside the rich Indians ruled by the British colonial masters, a small segment of English settlers in the Indian colony would be found volunteering to help the socio-economically marginalised people. Christian missionaries comprised the largest segment of these people. Many emerged as the Good Samaritans with efforts to spread the light of education among the underprivileged 'natives'.However, the number of these benevolent people was minuscule.

As would be natural, the Bengal region in the colonised India had witnessed the largest presence of these generous people. Some of them later emerged as legendary figures. This trend of providing financial help to the poor had still been in practice in the greater Bengal, when another form of volunteerism emerged in the region. In those days, monsoon floods and cyclones would be viewed as yearly phenomena.

In years, these seasonal features would attain the ferocity of great calamities. Apart from deaths and destructions in the vulnerable areas, natural disasters would render numerous people homeless. With the crop fields washed away in great floods, spells of hunger and, later, localised famines began hounding the rural poor. The other scourge which eventually emerged as a regular scourge for the poor was the sea-borne storms. This calamity would wreak havoc on rural areas filled with makeshift dwellings and small agricultural plots. As the roads and communication systems were stuck in a primitive stage, making it difficult to rush relief goods to remote areas, the small and big cities in those days would experience the exodus of people from villages.

The fallout of natural calamities at one stage gave birth to the private volunteers, comprising youths in the main. When it came to their unwavering mission, the philanthropic zeal and commitment to serving humanity, these individual volunteers proved the most trusted friends of people. With the colonial administration mostly found in the role of impassive spectators, it was the young humanitarian activists whom the affected people had to turn to. Similar spectacles unfolded during the great pandemics. Cholera and smallpox would be considered the two terrible outbreaks in those days. During the British colonial era in the early 20th century, the vaccine campaigns for these two dreadful epidemics had yet to emerge as widely spread. People would die in their hundreds, with many families completely wiped out. In those horrible and bewildering times, it was the young social workers who would be found attending to the dying patients, or arranging burial or cremation of the dead.

The raging Covid-19 pandemic has reenacted these scenarios in Bangladesh. The country has virtually ground to a halt, in consideration of the ferocity of the disease. The land has never thought of an assault coming from such a deadly pandemic. In spite of the ongoing vaccination campaigns, the country still remains overwhelmed by the increasing horror of the global scourge.

The earlier days of the pandemic's strike were fraught with dozens of fears, some later proved unfounded, the chief one relating to infection. To the great helplessness of many communities, in the history of recent pandemic outbreaks few have proved so feral. At one point of time not long ago, the intensity of the pandemic began threatening the global medical infrastructure.

Due to the emergence of newer viral variants and their repeated mutations, the medical fraternities found themselves in a great quandary. Had not the four to five preventive vaccines reached the governments almost simultaneously, more indefinite stretches of lockdowns and deaths without proper treatment may have followed. Even after running successful prevention campaigns with potent vaccines, the US, India and Brazil are compelled to stop half way through. Apart from controversies over the vaccines' efficacy, dearth of raw materials needed for manufacturing more vaccines amid nonstop deaths stands in the way of stopping the pandemic's march.

Lacunae of different sorts pervade the scene in the pandemic-hit developing and least developed countries. The scourge is far from being defeated. Critical phases like these warrant the presence of selfless volunteers. Countries may continue to need volunteers' cooperation in every sector of the fight against the pandemic - from burial or cremation of the dead to facilitation of the supply of medical paraphernalia and vaccines to hospitals crippled by dearth of sufficient manpower.


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