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My wife and I had decided to give in to the ever mounting pressure from my children and their spouses and finally stay home from 18 March 2020 – incidentally the day the first Covid-19 related death was announced for Bangladesh.
The country and the world at large has changed at an unprecedented pace over the last eight days. All 193 of the UN member countries have reported existence of the Covid-19. We remain homebound along with a third of humanity. No other global crisis reached so many countries and so many people in the past – not the Spanish flu in 1918 not the World Wars. It is levelling socioeconomic gaps. Rich, poor, the powerful and the disenfranchised – all are susceptible.
At the risk of sounding insensitive, the first hit for us was the departure of our household help, who opted to be with her near and dear ones in Mymensingh. As a precaution for all involved, we also gave paid-leave to our part-time help along with the driver. Now that my wife and I were on our own, I let the inner optimist out and approached this from a glass half-full perspective.
I finally have time to do things that I don’t normally do or am not allowed to do. Yesterday I decided to cook a bhaji with shalgom. This particular winter vegetable is normally used as an ingredient in preparing curries with fish or meat but not a bhaji. My wife appreciated my bhaji with a grain of salt, ‘delicious but it has too much oil in it’. I have re-taken charge of cleaning which I used to do while abroad – London, Boston, and New York, but not in Bangkok – we had household help there. That is one of the reasons why my wife misses Bangkok. According to her, Bangkok neatly combines the amenities of the West with the services of the East! Watching movies is another popular pastime. Like many others, we watched again the 2011 hit ‘Contagion’, which has so much similarity with what is happening in the world today. I also read Jajabor’s epic Drishtipat after many decades.
Managing energetic kids at home in a lockdown situation is a challenge. Like other kids, my two granddaughters (aged 3 and 6) are bored at home. But their parents have found a solution. Every day, their mom dresses them up in the morning as if they were going to school and puts them to study. To wean off some of the excess energy, they have been given a routine that includes kids yoga on YouTube, which they thankfully enjoy very much. Thank goodness for technology!
Staying at home and the additional cleaning duties have not prevented me from my ‘other work’. Many academics and researchers are taking the crisis as an opportunity to engage in innovative research, and I am being approached by such colleagues and friends from around the world to join them in research on specific topics related to the pandemic. As part of several virtual working groups, I have had the opportunity to connect more deeply with some very insightful people, which is furthering my thinking. For instance, I came across a post that illustrates how the other species are taking advantage of the new lease on life in our absence. Similarly, I am spending considerable time each day on conference calls with colleagues and friends from around the world concerned about the crisis and potential responses. In one such meeting convened by a local group and attended by leading health specialists and some with close connection to government’s Covid-19 responses, it was abundantly clear that a grim future would be inevitable unless effective and decisive steps were taken without any further delay.
The additional time has allowed me to become more socially active on platforms such as Viber and WhatsApp where my friends and I keep tabs on each other. I was recently surprised to know from one who, along with a group of friends, were still meeting up for breakfast and addas. I have recently written about this lacklustre response we are seeing to the requests of ‘social distancing’ and how it remains ‘foreign’ in our culture (it was published on BRAC’s blog and online via Bdnews24.com).
Thinking further, I am also disturbed by the lukewarm actions taken by our mosques in restricting congregations. When mosques in most Muslim countries including Saudi Arabia have forbidden congregations, we are continuing as if nothing or very little had happened – this can be fatally sloppy, careless and irresponsible. While I may not be an authority on this, but wouldn’t endangering the lives of your fellow musalli go against the grain of Islam? In times like these, the government must effectively lead and look beyond politics to make difficult choices.
Of late, the government has taken a number of positive steps. While the country is now in a near ‘lockdown’ condition, why are we not calling it so? The government offices have been given ‘chhuti’, and to many, as we have seen, this is interpreted as ‘holiday’. In such emergencies it is always critical to be clear, transparent and decisive – calling a spade a spade! Declare this as a lockdown, please! In such a situation, it is always the poor who suffer most, particularly those who live hand-to-mouth and depend on meagre wages. The Prime Minister in her address to the nation last night has announced a package of financial assistance for those who would be hard-hit by the crisis. These include an incentive package worth 5,000 crores of taka to help the ready-made garments sector. This, as she said emphatically, would be used to pay for the workers’ wages. She also announced a few other measures for the rural poor. However, it is not clear whether these are new money to wipe off the looming crisis or these are part of already existing social welfare schemes run by the government. If former, we need to know how much money the government is committing and also make sure that these are efficiently used to benefit those who need it the most. If latter, the government must commit new money because the existing schemes reach only a section of the poor.
The news of the development of a new kit by Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK) was exciting. I started wondering what BRAC was doing. In any previous disasters, be it floods, cyclones, civil strife or refugee crisis, BRAC was always at the frontline. The same evening that Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury announced the GK kit, I wrote to BRAC Executive Director Asif Saleh emphasising the importance for BRAC to take a leading role in the response efforts. The following morning, it was heartnening to know from Asif’s email that as part of the response, BRAC and Channel-i have initiated an extensive campaign on Covid-19. I understand the new chairperson of BRAC is planning to convene a (virtual) meeting of leading NGOs to coordinate the response efforts.
I am encouraged by the show of voluntarism across the country. Many civil society groups are active in producing protective gears such as PPE and masks and creating awareness. I feel very proud that the alumni of my school in Sylhet have been extending such help to those in the frontline. There are many others like this.
We must also keep in mind our elders. Isolation, especially for them can be debilitating. I have been trying to do my bit by chatting with elderly relatives and my own teachers. I recently called Professor M. G Mostafa, a former Chairman of the Statistics Department of Dhaka University. His wife, also my teacher, passed many years ago. He spends his days alone in his apartment in Uttara. I could sense how happy he was to receive the call. But a most pleasantly surprising was a call from Professor Kazi Saleh Ahmed, former Vice Chancellor of Jahangirnagar University. Saleh Sir, as we call him, had taught us economic statistics when I was a student at Dhaka University. Afterwards, I had the good fortune to work with him in Bangladesh Education Watch, an initiative of the Bangladesh civil society, coordinated by the Campaign for Popular Education (CAMPE). Be well and safe, Sir!
Finally, this is time to stay at home but not closing all our doors. We have to stay active and innovative and extend whatever assistance we can to face this unparalleled crisis.
Dr Mushtaque Chowdhury is professor of population and family health, Columbia University, and formerly vice chair of BRAC.
Photo credit: bigstockphoto