Coronavirus did catch everyone unawares managing which required a rapid response. Many have tried to but if the basic response structure is weak, problems begin as noticed. Sadly, Bangladesh is a good example of how weak service delivery structures have caused great difficulties for the people. They were not intended but in the end did happen.
It also showed that the structure may be beyond the capacity of public service governance system to manage. The scenario displays the weakness of the formal sector and may turn some/ many people away from it. In those cases, where the formal and the informal were in conflict, the situation reached a stalemate or ultimately were ignored. These are not good signals for the days to come.
Disturbing examples of a “lockdown”
Several instances have become symbols of the weak governance syndrome. The first relates to the lockdown which was not very badly planned and operationalized. By calling them by various names including “holidays”, the GOB showed considerable reluctance to be firm when needed. The result was a rather half hearted lockdown that spread the virus from the direct contact with infected returnees abroad to social spreading. Once the stage was reached not much could be done.
Yet, while Dhaka was badly hit for many reasons including middle class housing patterns and lack of access to social services, the health sector proved quite inadequate too. It's not their fault as historical priority of this sector is weak. In fact, almost every sector is and showed that the kind of smart response needed was possible. Having crowded open markets and mingling while insisting on isolation and quarantine made little sense.
People flouted it mostly because they had no choice but also because they live in a culture where rules don’t apply. And the Government has no mechanism or system through which these rules can be applied. Thus the basic strategy proved to be not successful as expected on the lessening of the infections spreading rate.
The Eid ride home
Few decisions have been as disastrous as the one to let car owners go outside Dhaka during the Eid festival. Rural areas had been relatively free from the virus and agricultural work had been going on without hindrance. The harvesting of Boro crop was possible because of this reason. However, in the post Eid scenario, this is showing signs of change with infections rising. Vulnerability has increased which has put a question mark on the economics of agriculture as well.
Many people actually ran passenger ferry services in the “private car allowed” window. A large number of people after being cooped up for days went for a holiday visit to the countryside. But these people were from the most infected group – urban apartment dwellers - including the asymptomatic group. Though no causal connection has been established yet but rural infection rates are rising in the post visit period.
The more troubling issue is that the managers of administration never felt that this was a risky decision and allowed the journey putting many at risk. Why it was done was never explained leaving more questions about decision making unanswered.
Departures, overfilled launches and fare hikes
Several high profile well off left the country by air ambulance planes or chartered ones. How it happened is another matter but the question is what are the protocols for leaving the country?. It should be told to all. Entry management of migrant returnees at the airport was poor also who carried the initial wave of infection. So security concerns have been raised about the critical aviation and airport security apparatus.
So can the same system take care of an emergency like Covid when its officials aren’t able to manage much simpler tasks? It won’t inspire more confidence in the system when that is what that is most needed.
The same goes for the bus fare hiking by 60% subject to certain conditions. Though fares are up, the buses are crammed with passengers so it's double jeopardy for the common person traveling. The launch and steamers are filled up to the brim and so travel by safe mode has no space. Other than the owners making some money after a 2-month lull, it's difficult to say what the gain was in terms of cost-benefit.
The lacuna is clear. The authorities seem hesitant/ unable to exert itself to make people listen to orders and rules. But the problem is that everyone is flouting it including officials. The bus owners, launch owners and the aviation officials are part of the same problem including the general people. That makes managing the Covid-crisis that much more difficult.