Tackling the COVID-19 pandemic: The Bangladesh case

by N N TARUN CHAKRAVORTY 8 June 2020

How Bangladesh tackles the COVID-19 pandemic is a matter of significant interest to the global community for a number of reasons: Bangladesh is the 8th most densely-populated country of the world, having 1252.6 residents per square kilometer according to World Population Prospects 2019 published by the United Nations; it is the second largest garment exporter; it has made remarkable improvements in a bunch of development indicators and achieved moderately high growth rates despite poor governance, poor institution and high corruption over the last three decades. Bangladesh is an important part of the global supply chain as its garment sector produces goods and accessories for many multi-national companies of the world. Therefore, these multi-national companies originating mainly in the developed countries will eagerly look to how Bangladesh overcomes the pandemic. At the same time, 4 million garment workers will remain out of work until the economic activities resume, which would strain the country’s economy badly while garment sector earns about 80% of its foreign currency.   

            In Bangladesh the first case of COVID-19 was detected on the 8th of March, 2020— much later than China and Europe. In India, Pakistan and Afghanistan the first case detected was on January 30, February 22, and February 24 respectively. It means that Bangladesh had the scope to perceive the gravity of the pandemic and take prudent measures ahead of time.  

            The screenshots of the graph below prepared by Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE) of the Johns Hopkins University, presents the trends in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh until May 02.

Figure: Trends (in logarithmic form) in the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh as of May 02.

As can be seen from the graph, the rate of rise in the number of COVID-19 case until March 23 was increasing but not exponential. From March 24 to April 02 the curve was almost flat. From April 03 it again shows an increasing trend until April 20 except April 11. After April 20, the rate of rise looks slightly smaller. However, from April 27 the curve shows an increasing rate again. This scenario tells us that the period from March 08 to March 23 for Bangladesh, was the time of high alert. And then, over the period from March 24 to April 02 Bangladesh had an opportunity to keep the curve flat or at least prevent it from being steep as it is now. It would be possible for Bangladesh to contain the spread of COVID-19 if it made right decisions on right time, proper announcements and took prudent measures in a concerted and coordinated manner.

            A number of factors experts mention, which were crucial for the spread of the virus. Many expatriate Bangladeshi workers returned to Bangladesh after the break-out. The countries such as Italy, China and some Middle-Eastern countries from where they returned, are badly affected. Bangladesh government planned to quarantine them but didn’t make proper arrangements to do so. Extremely poor arrangements angered the expatriates and unpleasant incidents took place. Thus, the quarantine program was not successful. The returnees scattered over many districts of Bangladesh, which is the likely cause of the spread of the virus in many parts of the country, including the capital city. 

            As soon as COVID-19 broke out, the most Middle-Eastern countries including Saudi Arabia declared postponement of saying prayer in congregation in mosques while saying prayer in congregation in mosques, is believed to be essential in Islam. But in Bangladesh which is considered a country of moderate Muslims, tens of thousands of fanatics took to the street to demonstrate protests against any possible declaration from the government to postpone congregations in mosques and threatened the government to the highest pitch of their voices. Hundreds of religious clerics issued oral decrees in open-air religious discussion meetings that there is no existence of contagious disease or virus according to the Quran and a Muslim can never be affected by such viral diseases and the Muslims in Bangladesh, therefore, must say their prayers in congregation in mosques— any move by the government to postpone it, would be anti-Islamic and ‘shall not be tolerated’. The current Bangladesh government, as it bows down to the demands of the Muslim clerics, did not dare to ban or postpone congregations in mosques officially. Statements like ‘it is advisable that we do not say our prayers in congregations until the pandemic is over’ was made in soft notes from some corners of the government and non-government bodies. Congregations in mosques in Bangladesh continued, which was a source of spread of the virus. Around the middle of March about 10, 000 people gathered in a mass prayer in a town called Raipur in Bangladesh with the belief that reciting “healing verses” from the Quran would heal the people affected by the corona virus

Screenshot of the gathering of mass prayer of about 10, 000 people in a Bangladesh town, Raipur on March 18.

            On March 23, Bangladesh government announced ‘public holiday’ from March 26 to April 04. Following this announcement, tens of thousands of people set off from the capital city and regional towns to villages or home towns. Many have resorted to recreation centers and sea beaches with families. The picture below shows how densely people gathered in one ferry on the way to their destinations. Although the announcement includes a note of advice for ‘staying at home’, people got a holiday mood and preferred going out of home. It indicates that the government failed to make people realize the gravity of the pandemic and that it made a wrong choice of words (‘public holiday’ or ‘general holiday’) in the announcement. The editorial of The Daily Star, a national daily of Bangladesh on March 26, expressed deep concern over it: “We are worried at the way hundreds of people left the capital after the government announced a ten-day general holiday…. the declaration of a “holiday” could be self-defeating. As hundreds of city-dwellers boarded buses, trains and launches to go to their village homes, we fear that this could further help spread the virus throughout the country…. And all this happened due to a lack of foresight and proper planning on the part of the government to handle the spread of the pandemic. What the government should have done instead was declare a medical emergency, raise awareness among the public about the importance of staying in their homes, and publicise the WHO directives about travelling and personal hygiene, including washing hands properly and frequently, as much as possible.

The picture shows home-bound or holiday-going people crossing a river squeezing into a small ferry on March 24.

The garment industry, the main growth engine of the economy, which employs 4 million workers, went on closure too under the purview of the declared ‘public holiday’ and many of its workers went home to stay there until April 11. Meanwhile, Bangladesh government declared a package of US$ 558 million of soft loan for the garment owners to pay wages to their workers during the pandemic, which was believed to remove the worries of the workers, but suddenly, we witnessed an influx of working-class people into the cities and their satellite towns. The following two pictures show this influx of the workers.   

Hundreds of people, mostly RMG workers, moving to Dhaka in flocks. Masses were seen on ferries ignoring the government’s guideline to maintain safe physical distance, as they travelled to the capital (Daily Star, April 05).

Hundreds of people, mostly RMG workers, walking to Dhaka in flocks (Daily Star, April 05).

We learned that the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) asked the workers to join the workplaces immediately. The questions that arise here are ‘why were they called upon to join their work during the lockdown? Why did the workers fear the loss of wages and loss of jobs while the government declared a stimulus package of US$ 558 million for the garment owners to pay wages?’ A Bangladeshi expert named Ali Riaz, a professor of Politics and Government at Illinois State University explains the situation in this manner: The workers have preferred livelihood to life. They have no reason to believe that they won’t lose their jobs and that they will receive their wages if absent from the workplace when they have been asked to start working. The professor poses some questions like ‘What has the government done for the workers so far that would convince them that the government is there to stand beside them? How many of the ultra-poor people of the country have received the relief food so far?’ Professor Riaz also observes that in giving more priority on making money than on the life of the workers the garment owners not only demonstrated inhuman behaviour but also risked the public health of more than 160 million people of Bangladesh. Garment workers’ return to their workplaces despite lockdown, mentioned above, is the reflection of people’s ‘no confidence’ in the state support, fear and frustration. As soon as the pictures of workers’ influx into cities, and towns during lockdown were published in newspapers, there arose a huge public outcry in social media. Then, following a government intervention, the ‘joining the work’ order was cancelled but the miseries of the workers were doubled because they have had to return their homes on the following day. There were few transports running on routes. Even if there were, most of the workers didn’t have the ability to avail themselves of the transports and thus, were compelled to travel miles after miles on foot. Many workers were not let in their rented houses by the land lords in the fear of the spread of corona virus. Therefore, the indomitable greed of the owners, the weakness of the government control, coordination and management significantly increased not only the spread of the virus but also the miseries of the working class in Bangladesh.  

Very recently, on April 18, when the number of COVID-19 rose to 2144 and the number of deaths to 84, thousands of people gathered to attend the namaz-e-janaza (the prayer for the deceased) of the leader of an Islamic organisation defying government orders to maintain social distancing and self-isolation. The picture below shows the density of the population on the spot.

Jamia Rahmania Madrasa premises where the funeral was held (photo is taken from the Daily Star).

            As has been mentioned earlier, Bangladesh had a scope to prepare itself to tackle the pandemic but the government lost that opportunity. One newspaper report clearly reflects this view: “Experts said the government had around three months to prepare, but it failed to grasp the gravity of the situation and act accordingly.” Lack of preparedness was acute in Bangladesh, which came to be known when we saw that health workers were not provided with adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). We read reports that doctors and nurses refused to work without PPE while authorities tended to force them to work. Asymmetric information provided by the Health Minister, concerned government departments and the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) created confusion in the people. The newspaper again reflects this dire situation: “Now when it is trying to procure testing kits and PPE, things have become very difficult.” The Daily Star in its editorial of March 26 rightly commented that “The lack of proper planning was evident from the very beginning of the crisis when the government failed to quarantine the returnees from foreign countries, at the beginning of this month. And even after some Covid-19 cases were confirmed by the IEDCR, necessary steps to contain the virus were not taken. There has always been a lack of coordination among different government bodies and experts in dealing with the situation. It is understandable that Bangladesh has limited financial resources, a poor healthcare infrastructure and that it has no universal healthcare system in place but a greater degree of prudence, proper planning, efficient management, proper coordination between different government departments, manufacturing/importing PPE & testing kit at the early stage, conducting tests in large numbers and successfully motivating the people for physical distancing and self-quarantine measures would be able to contain the COVID-19 to a greater extent. 

            Bangladesh Prime Minister announced a series of stimulus packages to tackle the pandemic. So far, her government has allocated more than 3.5% of its GDP under various programs besides the sum of USD 588 million meant for exporting industries, which is 0.3% of the GDP. This money is being channeled through a refinance scheme operated by Bangladesh Central Bank. Loan proceeds will be used to pay workers’ salaries, which is expected to benefit 4 million workers for a three-month period. The allocations put forward by the Bangladesh government is commendable. It has allocated more than some comparable countries, namely India, Pakistan and Indonesia have done. While Bangladesh’s allocation for the pandemic as a percentage of GDP is close to 4%, India’s, Pakistan’s and Indonesia’s allocations are 1.1%, 2.72% and 2.8% respectively. However, the caveat about Bangladesh is that the programs it has undertaken seem to be failing not only because of government’s unpreparedness, inability to ensure quarantine and physical distancing, lack of coordination among government departments and overall, inefficiency but also the corruption of the people’s representatives, the members of the ruling party and government officials. In this context, it is worth mentioning that the scenario of Bangladesh’s efforts of tackling the pandemic has a phenomenon which is not visible, to the best of my knowledge, in other countries facing the pandemic. From the beginning of the declaration of the stimulus package, we have seen news items of the misappropriation of relief rice almost every day in Bangladesh newspapers. On April 16, the most circulated Bengali newspaper, the Prothom Alo reports: “There is no sign of any end of the misappropriation of relief rice. From last Monday to last Wednesday alone, the local administration and law-enforcing agency have discovered new cases of misappropriation of relief rice amounting to 2, 257 sacks of rice from 10 districts.  Earlier, from April 08 to April 13, 124 tons of embezzled rice were seized by the police.”  As this article goes on to the end, on April 26, the same national daily reports that the local administration recovered 1.59 metric tons of relief rice meant for Vulnerable Group Feeding (VGF) programme. These reports clearly convey the message that the relief has not been distributed properly and that many have been left out of the relief program launched by the government to tackle the pandemic.

            Looks like, Bangladesh is yet to reach its peak of the COVID-19— the changes in the numbers of confirmed cases and deaths are still irregular although the fatality rate is lower than some comparable countries, namely India, Indonesia and Pakistan. Experts suspect that the number of infected people would be much higher if adequate tests were conducted. The capacities of conducting COVID-19 test per day in Indonesia, India and Pakistan are 12 000, 75 000, 20 000 respectively while Bangladesh is seen to conduct only 5,827 tests in the last 24 hours totaling 76, 066 as of May 02. For comparison purpose, let’s look at two other estimates of COVID-19 tests conducted by some countries of which some have very high numbers of cases such as USA, UK, some have comparatively low fatality rate such as Russia and Germany, and some are comparable to Bangladesh such as Pakistan: Bangladesh has conducted 0.005% of its population for COVID-19 while this figure for Germany,  Switzerland,  Russia,  Canada,  USA,  UK,  Sweden, Pakistan, India 3.109%, 3.100%, 2.424%, 2.148%, 1.906%, 1.244%, 1.215%, 0.105%, 0.063% (published by worldometers (https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/#countries) as of April 30). In respect of daily tests conducted per thousand people as well, Bangladesh lags behind:  Russia, New Zealand, Canada, United Kingdom, United States, South Korea, Pakistan have conducted 1.545, 1.18, 1.164,  1.078, 0.922, 0.062, 0.036 tests per thousand people on May 01 while Bangladesh has done only 0.034 (‘our world in data’ (ourworldindata.org)).

It is indeed a dismal performance of Bangladesh government because in order to prevent the spreading of the virus, a large number of tests need to be conducted each day and those tested positive need to be isolated. If not, there is a possibility of unexpectedly high number of COVID-19 positive cases in Bangladesh, which would be beyond the capacity of the government to tackle with the poor health infrastructure and management it has in place.  It is, therefore, imperative that Bangladesh ramp up the capacity of conducting COVID-19 test per day immediately so that it may forecast the number of infected people and take necessary measures ahead of time.

            In order to reduce the strain of the poor and to ward off a possible famine, Bangladesh government must make sure that the cash and relief materials reach the people who those are meant for. For this, the government must work in collaboration with all political parties and the civil society because the involvement of opposition parties and civil society would create checks and balances, which in turn would prevent misappropriation of the relief materials mentioned above. Bangladesh, like any other nation, must look forward beyond the current pandemic. In order to make a proper utilization of the tax-payers’ money, and an efficient and fair transfer mechanism to improve the life of the poor in the future Bangladesh must improve its governance and political institution, and strengthen democracy.

            As has been seen above, the clerics have damaged the public health by injecting unscientific ideas into people’s minds and spreading wrong messages. They prevented social and physical distancing. The government being scared of them did not dare to ban congregations in mosques or in open air. The rise of religious fundamentalism and Islamist militancy in Bangladesh is a matter of deep concern. Therefore, for the long run, the government must combat this rise and make arrangements to impart science-based education to the citizens, for which, a secular education system must be in place.

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