Over four months have now passed since the local outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic was belatedly acknowledged by the Government of Bangladesh. It has been a time of great hardship, needless deaths, growing anger and deep frustration for our people. A mismanaged virtual lockdown caused economic and social disruption and did little to halt the spread of the virus. The Government delayed in taking action, failed to prepare the health system for the looming crisis, and was negligent in testing, contact tracing and quarantines. The Government has now gone silent on its strategy for tackling the epidemic and its economic impact. Different agencies make announcements that are contradicted a few days later by other agencies, adding to the confusion.
The level of testing has been low, and media reports suggest it is now being reduced. Corruption in the supply of protective gear has cost the lives of many health care workers. The entire health system is in a state of paralysis, with patients desperately moving from hospital to hospital trying to get admitted. A lucky few are entitled to the (excellent) services of the Combined Military Hospital (CMH), while others have escaped to Bangkok, London or Canada. Looking over the list of those falling victim to the coronavirus in Bangladesh, everyone asks, who’s next?
The lack of clear and coordinated coronavirus policies and the failure to tackle the deepening fiscal, financial and economic crisis has dismayed everyone. This includes even the small minority of people who actually supported the Government at the beginning of this year. The Government’s “relief” program for businesses and the poor was badly designed and even more badly administered. As many feared, the bulk of allocated funds are going to business cronies and ruling party officials. Small businesses have closed down and unemployment has soared. The uncertainty about what lies ahead is worsened by a widespread perception that this regime has lost its way. The only thing people agree upon is that the situation is going to get much worse.
The Awami League government, ruling by force, has found it impossible to develop the national unity needed to tackle the coronavirus pandemic and the associated economic downturn. The regime’s reaction to any criticism or even constructive suggestion from anyone except a card-carrying camp-follower shows the paranoia and isolation of its leaders. It has used the Digital Security Act to arrest those (even a 14-year-old boy) who have turned to the social media to express their hatred and contempt for ruling party leaders. Rather than dealing with the causes of disaffection and dislike the Government has chosen to deal with the symptom. The problem is far too many people do not approve of what the Awami League has become. Surely this must concern those who care about the future of this once-popular party?
The worst aspect about the current situation is the crisis of confidence. The collapse of consumer and investor confidence is bad enough. The fact that one-third of the country is facing severe flooding has added to the gloom. The sense of malaise and fear goes well beyond this. Reports of bright young people who have lost all hope in the future of this country is disturbing. They are seeking avenues of escape, even as hundreds of thousands are forced to return to Bangladesh due to the global recession. Anger about this Government has sometimes given way to feelings of resignation and now, just shame.
It is said that a nation gets the Government that it deserves. I disagree. No nation deserves a Government so oblivious to the public interest. In “normal” times they have gotten away with it. In the past the economy was buoyed by high levels of workers’ remittances while political challenges were contained through buyouts and coercion. The situation has clearly changed. The damage done to the nation is severe, but not irreparable. The question now is does the Government have the confidence, sagacity and vision needed to pull Bangladesh out of this crisis?
Having spent most of his career as an economist with the IMF in Washington, DC, Dr Reza Kibria is currently based in Dhaka and serves as General Secretary of Gono Forum.