Bangladesh’s COVID-19 Response Plan; Can the government turn a chaotic start into a good end?

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By M. Adil Khan* 5 April 2020

Contrary to the common belief that Government of Bangladesh has been least prepared and that its responses to COVID-19 have been ad hoc and impulsive, it is important to note that the government did have an elaborate plan, ‘National Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID – 19’, Bangladesh. The Plan was prepared under the guidance of the Directorate General of Health, Government of Bangladesh, in March 2020.

For some unexplained reasons, the Plan apparently was never made public.

The Plan envisages four levels of COVID-19 responses: Level 1 is when ‘no cases is detected in the country’ and this relates pre-COVID-19 preparedness; Level 2 is when ‘imported cases and limited human-human transmission’ has occurred and this relates to actions concerning returned Bangladeshi expatriates; Level 3 is when there is a ‘cluster of cases’ which relates to actions aimed at ‘containment’ of the virus; and finally, Level 4 — the highest level —  is the stage of ‘community transmission’ and “mitigation” actions.

Like most plans test of their utility is not in their textual beauty but in implementation and this is where Bangladesh government may have faltered quite badly. For example, instead of utilizing the Level 1 Response period – ‘no cases are detected in the country’ – in preparing for what might be needed for Levels 2-4, government – especially some of its ministers – used this time in engaging in mindless bravados and denials. As a result, when the problem struck, actions on Levels 2-4 fell by the wayside. For example, due to neglect of Level 1 preparatory actions, government’s Level 2 responses relating to ‘imported cases and limited human-human transmission’ ended in complete fiasco. Similarly, Level 3 responses – ‘containment’ of the virus – that included among other things, testing and sending people in social isolation also experienced similar chaos and this would entail serious consequences  because testing is a key component of COVID-19 containment and yet the level of preparedness – supply of testing equipment and other related logistics etc. – have been far from ideal, if not dismal. Bangladesh’s current rate of testing rate, 10 per million, is the “lowest in the world” which, to say the least is deeply worrying.

These foul-ups only reveal government’s ineptness in implementing its own plan.

With these failures under its sleeves and now that the country is marching fast towards Level 4, the highest level, the stage when infection reaches the community level and multiplies and causes deaths exponentially and also given that Bangladesh’s below par preparedness and its inefficient and inadequate public health system, there are estimates that anything between half a million to a staggering 2 million may die of COVID-19.

Not sure whether government has factored in these projections in formulation of its COVID-19 Plan though from various statements and newspaper reports it is apparent that even though the government is fully aware of the gravity of the situation and is doing all it can, more would need to be done.

Addressing COVID-19 requires actions at multiple levels. What would work for the rich would not work for the poor. For example, restrictions in movements or home isolations worked largely for the rich in cities but not for the poor especially those who earn by the day and live by the day. For them social isolation is virtual death warrants and yet, there have been instances where they were humiliated when some of them ventured out, in search of work.

Government must find some creative and organized ways to solve the problem of this group of disadvantaged people, say for example, supply them with free dry rations at their homes through programmes such as vulnerable group feeding etc. of yesteryears.

What may also be needed on an urgent basis is to give clear instructions to all agencies – both government and non-government and the charities, both institutional and private, not just what they must do but also what they must NOT.

Furthermore, given Bangladesh’s limited resources and its corrupt, inept and weakened institutions, and also the fact that those who are at the forefront of implementation of its Plan namely the bureaucrats,  party workers, self-proclaimed volunteers and dis-interested well-wishers who either employ bullying as preferred tactic or use the crisis as a public relations opportunity and thus do precious little to inspire confidence must be restrained, it would do the  government well to look for alternative institutions that are competent, adept at handling crisis and are trusted by people, those that can implement its Plan, objectively, stringently and most importantly, sensitively.

We all know that COVID-19’s challenges are not limited to health; its economic fallouts are expected to be huge and prolonged, worldwide including Bangladesh. While some sort-term measures are needed to tide over some of the immediate challenges relating to loss of businesses and jobs, strategic thinking and innovative policies are needed to respond to the significant shifts and changes that are imminent in the global market, in the coming days.

Bangladesh’s current economic architecture which has served it well for last three decades or so may prove to be not so relevant to the post COVID-19 evolving global economic scenario anymore. There is thus an urgent need to think proactively and make changes early so that adjustments can be made, keeping in mind that like most crisis that destroy existing arrangements, also create new opportunities and COVID-19 would be no exception. Bangladesh would do well to put its best brains together to identify new opportunities and tap onto those soon.

In the backdrop of the above and given the complexities of the problem, the question that must be asked is, can Bangladesh do it – can it reverse its chaotic beginning to a good end?

I believe Bangladesh can and in this regard, I echo claims of many in the government and outside that if Bangladeshis were able to fight a difficult war of independence and win, it can also win its fight against COVID-19, just that it needs to remind itself of couple of important issues and these are that in the 1971 war of liberation, no casualties were big enough but in the COVID-19 fight, minimisation of casualties is the most important goal and secondly, war of liberation was fought by all and not by a particular group or a section of people and this has been its core strength.

In sum, coronavirus would cause many shifts and changes in the coming days. I believe that only the countries with strong public institutions, strong public wellbeing oriented policies where resources and science have the capacity to respond to the needs of people and not profit and more importantly, where leaderships promote inclusion and think strategically and not opportunistically and are socially conscious – only they and not others would come to the top. Such countries are not gifts of god but are creations of citizens. This is public governance 101, abandoned in recent times.

Finally, a warning.

COVID-19 has put us all onto a Titanic – the journey is long, arduous and hazardous. Everyone, rich and poor, government and non-government organizations and the opposition etc. etc. are all on the same ship, travelling together where we must plan and act inclusively and share responsibilities and navigate our way out of the hazard, together for if we don’t and instead behave callously, divisively and selfishly, we all would go down with the difference that some of us may be travelling in the upper deck, in the first class!

*The author is Professor of Development Practice, School of Social Science, University of Queensland, Australia and former Senior Policy Manager of the United Nations.