As Bangladesh is fighting coronavirus pandemic that has affected 212 countries and territories, assumptions about the virus, prediction of severity, and pattern of genome have all been changing, puzzling scientists and perplexing policymakers, disaster management experts in particular. It is being apprehended that the virus might remain and continue attacking until 2021 or 2022 and even for an ever-ending period with its modified version every season.
Although Bangladesh has a long experience in disaster management, it is difficult to deal with the coronavirus, which is quite different by its nature. In this case, mitigating disaster means treatment of patients and stopping or minimising spread of the virus by maintaining social distancing and health hygiene. Providing food to vulnerable group has been another vulnerable act in view of risks of community transmission due to movement of people seeking livelihoods opportunities.
However, in South Asia, Bangladesh is relatively better off in terms of cases of infection whereas the country was apprehended to be the next epicentre of this disaster after the Covid-19 outbreak in Wuhan, China. April was predicted to be the most critical period for Bangladesh and May is considered the peak of the coronavirus curve.
Such uncertainties affect disaster mitigation and create fears about tomorrow. At this stage, there are three major disaster mitigation functions - healthcare services to coronavirus-infected patients by health professionals; keeping the masses at home through proper enforcement; and ensuring food for vulnerable groups.
Treatment of Covid-19 patients without vaccine is a major challenge. The frontline fighters, i.e., doctors, nurses, and health officials, are trying their best in spite of being infected. The entire government machinery, along with health service providers, is in the battle against the virus. Regrettably, only public sector hospitals and doctors are providing services, with exception of Square Hospital. Other organisations and volunteers are distributing hand sanitisers among the commoners to stop infection.
Bangladesh has declared public holidays since March 26 while educational institutions remain closed since March 18. While public holidays are effective till May 16, educational institutions may be kept closed until September if the situation does not return to normalcy.
In fact, decision regarding closure of schools, colleges and universities helped slow down spread of virus. Apart from public holidays, restrictions are imposed on movement, and gathering in public places, time for opening necessary grocery shops, and also movement of vehicles. Law enforcement authorities are assigned to execute government orders in this regard.
Management of food distribution among the vulnerable people is a challenging task as their number exceeds 50 million. In a country like ours, it's a gigantic task unlike developed nations that either need not do so or have well-functioning social security system with taxpayers' money. However, the government of Bangladesh started providing relief materials, especially as part of social safety net programmes, from the beginning of the crisis utilising local administrations.
For smooth and fair distribution of food among those who deserve, officials generally prove to be neutral being non-local, prudent in decision making and non-partisan in serving the people on the ground. The Bangladesh government has planned to continue food distribution until the pandemic ends.
Emphasis has also been laid on the private organisations' involvement, mainly as their part of corporate social responsibility. Some of them offer donation to government funds apparently with an expectation of future favour. Exceptions are also there in supporting corona patients by building hospitals.
A more effective approach is the use of social capital that automatically builds bridges between the common but relatively well-off people, volunteers and charity organisations and the poor who can benefit from philanthropic activities. Social groups based on knowledge of others, social works, and social medic engagement, have evolved during the crisis, raised funds, and provide necessary items to vulnerable groups, especially the poor who live from hand to mouth.
A philosophy of 'being human and act accordingly' creates stronger bonding among people, an approach which is deeply rooted in our culture of fighting together and living together by sharing whatever we have. In this disaster-prone country, such social capital is utilised when people need emergency services such as harvesting crops when there is a crisis of labour.
Only a one-off solution to the pandemic for April-May 2020 period may not solve the crisis. It requires a comprehensive but strategic plan to overcome the pandemic and take preparations until the virus is completely eliminated and new effective management mechanism is developed.
Most assumptions about coronavirus in Bangladesh context prove to be wrong. Even if a vaccine is produced, which is, for instance, suitable for conditions in colder countries, that may not work in a tropical country and rather lead to a dangerous situation. Keeping that in mind and given the demand of vaccine in the world market, Bangladesh should start investing in scientific research focusing on vaccine that is effective in our conditions. Banking on past success in disaster management, Bangladesh needs to explore newer solution to the new crisis of Covid-19 that may define the global order and shape our collective future.
Dr. Mohammad Tarikul Islam is an Associate Professor of the Department of Government and Politics at Jahangirnagar University.
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