The task before the government is to keep the wheels of the economy rolling while at the same time, containing the pandemic
It is easy to pronounce prescriptions from the sidelines and to fret about why the 'obvious' is not addressed. After all, what we need to do is test, trace, isolate, treat. The reality is that on each and every front, our capacities are rudimentary. The best capacity lies with a few 'four star' establishments, which have decided to stay out of the war effort, by and large. Some smaller non-public entities are coming forward, tentatively and with considerable trepidation. The public sector health system – well let's not state the obvious. Let it suffice to remember that anyone who could afford, went to India, Thailand Malaysia or Singapore for treatment. That also meant, there was kind of a dual system where the poor were relegated to public facilities, and those better off went abroad. In an emergency, one had no option but to rely on local talent, whether lone star or four!
In comes a vicious googly in the form of Covid-19, and the system as we know it, shakes, trembles and threatens to collapse. So much so that an Additional Secretary has to die and stories of the trials and tribulations faced by patients abound. There is no excuse for some failures. Avoidable deaths, certainly, is one. In fact this has now emerged as our biggest psychological threat. Or has it?
The shopping spree unleashed on city streets comes as a surreal spectacle in the midst of a pandemic which shows no signs of waning. So what do we make of all this? And what should the government do?
No point in stating that we are between the devil and a very hard place: we are. On the one hand, epidemiologists would certainly want us to close down and wait it out; the government however, realizes that this is not an option. We all know the reasons so there is no need to belabor the point. Thus a compromise is warranted – the famous balance that every talk show pundit is vociferous about.
We have effectively now left it to individual choice, if that is what it is: OK so you want to open shop – go ahead but remember to practice social distance. You want to go to the mall? Go ahead but remember...social distance! Yes, for some, the choice is a genuine exercise in free will. However, there are many, many others without any choice: Those who need to work to survive. Those whose savings have evaporated. The essential workers – our doctors, nurses, technicians, paramedics...they have no choice – even when they refuse to see you in an emergency. No, that last part is not correct – my bourgeois-liberal sense of honour finds something fundamentally repugnant when eight or so hospitals refuse to take in an emergency patient. My words fail me here.
Actually, this essay is turning into a bit of an outpouring of my own anxiety and stress after bravely sticking out home arrest for two months. BS actually had requested me to write something about the way forward, or in their words, how to recover from the economic effects of Covid-19.
At first, and this seems to happen a lot, one's point of reference tends to hover around the early 1970s – understandable to those of us who were witness to another cataclysmic event. The first thing that occurred to me when I heard the word 'recovery' is that one thinks of recovery usually after the disaster in question has ended and one enters a period of relative calm when reconstruction and recovery can take place. As the battle rages, as infrastructure crumbles, fatalities mount, refugees leave in ever-larger numbers, recovery and reconstruction cannot take place. While the current situation is not completely analogous, there is enough similarity here to ponder over this question. Here are my thoughts.
First of all, if we keep going at this rate, meaning we experience 7-10 deaths a day, a thousand afflicted daily, the popular psyche is unlikely to be moved. After all, out of these 10 deaths, 5 are oldies (RIP– so sorry) so what is the big deal? Don't many, many more people die of diarrhea or traffic accidents or drowning? So yes, we can be cautious but no reason to shut down everything! And let's face it, we in this part of the world are used to large body counts, and this, doesn't fit the bill.
We are also a very visual people – seeing is believing. This time, the enemy is invisible and then the numbers are low and the victims keep a low profile. We will only take this more seriously – all of us – when the count goes up. Unfortunately, the count will go up so please hurry up with your Eid shopping.
The task before the government is to keep the wheels of the economy rolling while at the same time, containing the pandemic. Given the mindset of the people and knee-jerk responses, people are ready to cooperate. There are several prerequisites that have to be addressed for this strategy to work. There must be a minimum level of trust and confidence in the health system. What this means is that when a person is very ill, he must have access to health care. Without this confidence, those wheels will stop because people will be too afraid to work – not the workers of course – their priorities are different. Those really afraid will be middle and senior management without whom factories wont run, offices wont operate, LCs wont be opened, and deals wont be struck. It is in the interest of economic recovery that we must quickly enable our health system to be geared up. All our energy MUST go into getting it ready for the War. Without this, there will ne no recovery, and certainly no reconstruction. Please, if you are serious about the economy, be very serious about the health sector.
As for the workers, they will accept their fate as their forefathers have done for a thousand years.
KAS Murshid is the Director General of Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies