The Financial Express

Covid-19: Amid umpteen ills some bright inklings

Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad | Published: April 29, 2020 21:08:20 | Updated: May 08, 2020 21:47:37

Covid-19: Amid umpteen ills some bright inklings

In the past, pandemics killed large numbers of people. For example, Asian Flu (1957-58) killed between 1.1 million and 4.0 million people and Spanish Flu (1918-20) killed between 17million and 50 million or more people.  The Novel Coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has so far (as of 28 April 2020) killed over 0.21 million, and increasing. But no other pandemic has spread all through the world like Covid-19. The others were concentrated in one or several regions of the world. As opposed to that, Covid-19 has spread to all 210 countries and territories of the world,  more or less intensely. It's a new and bewildering record in the history of global pandemics.

Nations are responding through various measures, although in some cases starting somewhat belatedly, to contain its spread and save lives from the virus's claws and also from food insecurity caused by the pandemic. Also, each country is trying to keep the wheel of the economy turning in the face of disastrous impacts on various sectors and taking steps to rejuvenate the economy as the pandemic will taper off. But the future reach and consequences of the pandemic are uncertain. It may reappear vehemently in a country, where one wave has been brought under control. Such has already been the case in Japan. Probably, this possibility will remain in the horizon for all countries until an effective vaccine is developed to treat it.

Scientific vaccine development efforts are being frantically pursued in different, mainly advanced, countries. In this regard, there is one good news: Oxford University in UK has already developed a vaccine for which testing on humans is about to start. One fervently hopes that this is successful. Even if this is so, many more months may yet take before a proven effective vaccine for coronavirus treatment is available. Research and development efforts mounted in other countries may also succeed in the course of time. But, there will still be a question as to how long it may take before all countries of the world, particularly low income countries will have access to the vaccine affordably and in adequate quantities. It is therefore likely that different countries of the world will continue to face different periods of uncertainties before convincingly overcoming the pandemic. However, the old normal is unlikely to ever return again. New normals relating to socio-economic and even political arrangements seem destined to be established.

In Bangladesh, the pandemic is now spreading rather fast. It has already appeared in almost all districts of the country (as of 28 April, 61 districts out of 64)-- more intensely in some distrIcts as of now. The peek for the country is yet to happen, which it is suggested may be upon us by mid-May. The Government of Bangladesh has been strengthening action programmes to combat the virus, following the now well-known route of people to maintain social and physical distances and observe the do's and don'ts; expanding testing for coronavirus, treating as appropriate, hospitalising including in ICUs, isolating at home or in hospital, quarantining at home or in institutions, and deployment of law enforcing forces to take steps towards ensuring that people observe lockdown conditions. Unfortunately, many people are not cooperating with regard to staying at home, forcing legal steps from the law enforcing and administrative personnel. Also, there are still gaps in testing, hospital and other facilities as well as in relation to the number of doctors, nurses and other caregivers, as peaking of the infection is awaited. Steps towards meeting them need to be strengthened, about which the authorities are well aware and explicitly committed to fulfilling. But progress so far is rather limited.

The government is also working to help the poor and low income people, who are the hardest hit by lockdowns and loss of jobs and other income earning opportunities, by expanding safety net activities and to keep the economy moving through stimulus programmes. In fact, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced an elaborate assistance and stimulus package to help the distressed people in the wake of Covid-19 and rejuvenate the economy suffering from setbacks due to the same reason. More support should and, I expect, will  be allocated to the sectors and subsectors that will be in need, based on needs assessment. Indeed, periodic needs assessment should be a key element in the strategy. The other key issue is to ensure proper, effective, honest  and timely implementation of the programmes undertaken. No let or hindrance is to be tolerated.

One social issue seems to be emerging as a consequence of Covid-19, which deserves attention. Staying at home continuously for days and weeks has reportedly led to domestic violence against women in the USA and other western countries. But my own enquiry, based on a tiny sample and unscientific method, has revealed that staying locked down at homes for prolonged periods of time has generally raised the level of fellow feeling and mutual empathy in Dhaka. I expect, this truly holds for Dhaka and Bangladesh as a whole. In any case, I should think it will serve a useful purpose in the context of understanding human behaviour and relations under conditions of isolation together but socially and physically cut out from all others, if a proper research is conducted on this topic when time is opportune after the pandemic has subsided.

While Covid-19 has been spelling ills for peoples around the world, certain positive outcomes are seen to appear, which if cherished by all concerned, after the pandemic is no more, may bring certain human values and humanitarian influences to bear on social and environmental landscape in individual countries and globally. Consider the following.

There has been a significant improvement in environmental conditions all around world as a result of large-scale reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, during the time Covid-19 pandemic has been raging, due to steep decline in fossil fuel consumption by airlines, motor vehicles, steamers and other modes of transport within countries and across the world and by fossil fuel-dependentindustrial and other acivities --  as all of these activities are at a standstill or drastically reduced levels of operation;  drastic reduction in encroachment on coastal and oceanic ecosystems; abatement of the destruction of forests and rivers; and  notable reductions in various types of water and air pollution. These improvements are visible in Bangladesh and indeed globally.

Obviously, all of these activities will resume in the post pandemic time. But, if the practical demonstration that a more balanced environment can be recouped, when there is a looming existential threat in the form of fast worsening climate change, it is possible to come together to save the global society and the planet Earth. What needs to be done is to ensure global GHG emission at such lower levels as to conform to the scientifically determined levels for avoiding the existential climate crisis and re-establishing a balanced human-environment relationship.

Reportedly in police stations in Dhaka, recording of general diaries and registration of cases against crimes have declined sharply during the period Covid-19 has been spreading. I expect, this holds for the whole country.  It is very likely that similar developments are taking place in other countries as well.

There are examples that human values are winning over selfishness in the wake of Covid-19 pandemic all around the world.  Examples: (A) Doctors, nurses and other health workers in Bangladesh and all around the world are attending Covid-19 patients, knowing full well that they themselves face high risks of falling prey to the virus. (B) Also, despite facing risks, members of the law enforcing agencies and government officials are working all across Bangladesh seeking to ensure, in addition to other duties, the lockdowns imposed are effective and also participating in the distribution of food and other relief materials to the people devastated by the pandemic. People belonging to these professions are known to be similarly working all across the world. This passion demonstrated by these people for service to the humanity despite facing risks is one of the finest traits of humans. (C) People of means are standing by distressed people in Bangladesh and elsewhere with food and other consumer necessaries. This indeed is a gesture informed by the human value that all human beings have responsibilities for other human beings.

However much one feels elevated leading a life driven by all kinds of mechanical and electronic gadgets, coronavirus has brought home to humans that it's not high-tech paraphernalia but such basic practices as hand-washing with soap and maintaining personal hygiene are key to keeping the virus at bay.For sure, a nuclear weapon is useless in getting rid of the virus. The above mentioned rather rudimentary practices are, indeed, imperative on everybody, regardless of their socio-economic and political positions, to adopt to stave off the menace. Would that not shock humans at top echelons, in terms of wealth and power, into realising that they are at one with all others as human beings, including those unfortunately living lowly lives? Certainly, there are those who have found their feet again, as people of means are increasingly standing by the distressed in these Covid-19 times.

If the values and attitudes in display during the Covid-19 pandemic, outlined in above paragraphs, still permeate people concerned after the pandemic has subsided and they behave in the same spirit, society will be more humane and worthwhile to live in for all members. But these positives may fritter away soon if the policy and institutional arrangements are not geared to assimilating them into a human-centric social framework. And that can be developed by purposefully implementing Agenda 2030 for Sustainable Development. The underlying guiding principles informing this agenda include equity, inclusion, participation, human rights, human dignity, and harmony with nature. Key basic pillars include skilled people at all levels for all sectors and effective and accountable institutions. To achieve the goal, all of these as a process need to be guided and facilitated by an overarching conducive political will pressed into practice.

On the other hand,  if politics that will be in vogue at the time is informed by partisanship, divisiveness and neo-liberal ideas, not only the few positives identified in this paper will soon dissipate but also the society will be even more unequal and the achievement of sustainable development will remain a far cry, with all the attendant adverse social and environmental consequences.

Dr Qazi Kholiquzzaman Ahmad is a senior economist and development thinker.


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