The coronavirus, after a lull, has made a comeback in several countries located on different continents. Asia seems to be its prime target this time. Neighbouring India is now witnessing the worst of the pandemic as there have been records, in terms of infection and fatality, galore in recent weeks. Some countries ---Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand included --- in Southeast Asia remained almost unscathed until recently. But they are also facing a surge in infections.
Bangladesh is in the midst of the second wave. The severity of the disease is more this time. Even a week back, the hospitals were overwhelmed by the rush of patients. As the government had enforced a countrywide lockdown from April 05, the infection started declining after some days. The fatality rate, however, is still high and has been fluctuating.
The very nature of lockdown in Bangladesh is different from that seen in other countries. The authorities here have an inclination to succumb to pressure coming from various interest groups. It has diluted the effectiveness of the restrictions. When the government was mulling imposing the current lockdown, the industrial circles, mainly the apparel makers, requested the government to keep their factories operational. The government obliged.
Transports barring public buses are plying the city streets freely. The shops and markets kept their shutters down for some days. They are open now. People in their thousands are thronging markets for Eid-shopping, hardly caring about health safety rules.
Now it is the turn of the transport owners and workers to put forward their demand. A group of transport workers took to the street last Thursday demanding resumption of passenger bus service. Their argument is: when everything is back in business, why should the public transports sit idle at terminals, depriving them of their daily wage?
It's a valid argument. Hotel and restaurant owners are likely to follow suit soon. When given in to pressure from a certain quarter/s, others cannot stay behind.
The government has been facing a dilemma since the pandemic had struck the country in March last year. Its predicament revolves around the question of life and livelihood. For the sake of the livelihood of millions of poor and low-income people, the government had to take a soft approach.
But what if the situation turns as grave as it is now in India. Covid patients are dying on the streets without treatment or life-saving oxygen supply. Authorities in some major Indian cities have arranged makeshift crematoriums as the regular ones have no space left. Cow dung is being used to cremate dead bodies due to the non-availability of firewood. It is truly a heartbreaking scene.
Why has the situation turned so grave in India? 'Complacency' is the right word to answer this question. As the infection and fatality fell notably in winter, many thought the worst is over. Almost everything was back to business. An estimated 9.1 million people took part in a holy dip in the Ganges at Haridwar in recent weeks. Assembly elections were held in several states last month. A new variant is being blamed for the current pathetic state in India. But the Indian government and a section of its population have to take the most blame.
The situation in Bangladesh is not as critical as it is in India. But the possibility of facing the same cannot be ruled out if we become indifferent and create a free-for-all situation. We are still in the midst of a renewed health emergency; many critically ill patients are not getting beds in intensive care units (ICUs) in hospitals. General beds are available, but not ICU beds in public hospitals. In the event of any major rise in infections, there could be a severe shortage of oxygen also.
So, what do we do? What should get precedence---life or livelihood? Health experts are for saving lives first.
Livelihood is an important issue for millions of poor and low-income people. Lockdown, if enforced strictly, would deprive them of their daily income. The country's economy will also again suffer badly. Poverty and joblessness would go up.
Yet the government needs to evaluate the situation from the right perspective. For instance, even a loose lockdown like the present one has delivered some results; infection rate is falling and, most likely, the fatality rate will also go down in the coming days. What if the government could ensure a lockdown in the real terms? The outcome, surely, would have been better. Since Bangladesh is a close neighbour of India, it remains quite vulnerable. The government has closed borders with India for two weeks. The time should be extended and any sort of infiltration through a very porous border needs to be stopped.
Health experts have identified markets and shopping malls and public transports as the major hotspots of Covid-19 transmission. If buses are allowed to operate, the situation will be worse. The transport minister has already indicated operation of buses soon. Then only government offices, some hotels and restaurants on the main streets will remain closed.
Covid-19 has killed more than 11,000 people until now. That is the official estimate. During such a pandemic, many deaths go unrecorded. The virus has infected nearly 0.8 million people. Many who have survived the severe infection do know how painful the disease is.
The government could go for a tougher lockdown only if it addressed the issue of the livelihood of the poor and low-income people. It has taken up a food distribution programme through the district administration for the poor and vulnerable people. But the process is not as friendly as the situation demands. More than anybody else, the urban poor and daily wage earners need such help most. Voluntary organisations and affluent section of people should also come forward to help the poor. During the ' general holiday' last year, some organisations and individuals were found to extend such help. Their help is needed again.
The government started disbursement of a cash relief of Tk 2,500 to the poor from yesterday. Hopefully, the benefit would reach the target population.