It may come as a surprise to many of us that an influenza epidemic around 130 years ago had sowed the seed of our rights as consumers of goods and services
If you feel aggrieved by the poor quality of any good or its high price, you have rights to file a complaint with the food safety authorities seeking a remedy.
Media reports show many consumers in Bangladesh over the last decade have been offered remedies for violation of the rights they are guaranteed by law, ever since the relevant authorities began functioning.
But it may come as a surprise to many of us that an influenza epidemic around 130 years ago had sowed the seed of our rights as consumers of goods and services.
Currently we have dozens of laws dealing with consumers' rights and their protection mechanisms, though in sporadic way.
The story began in 1892 during the influenza outbreak in England when a pharmaceutical company, Carbolic Smoke Ball Company, based in London, wanted to cash in on the medical emergency triggered by the flu outbreak. The company introduced a product, Smoke Ball, which it claimed was a cure for influenza. The product was an inhaler filled with carbolic acid.
For quick marketing, the company claimed that a person who uses Smoke Ball would never contract influenza. It advertised in newspapers that any person who catches the flu - in spite of having used the Smoke Ball three times a day for two weeks - will be rewarded with 100 pounds and that the company had deposited 1000 pounds in Alliance Bank towards the payment of reward.
Having caught the flu despite having used Smoke Ball in a prescribed manner, one British woman sued the company and sought compensation. The company refused claiming that it had no contract with her.
But the court rejected the argument and concluded that the company's advertisement and depositing of the money for compensation was an offer for every consumer. So, there was a contract. A new law was made by the court.
That was the beginning. Thirty years later this law protected people in UK during the Spanish flue. None of the companies in their advertisements dared to come up with claims like the Smoke Ball Company did to sell their products to make quick money.
The rest, as they say, is history. Every developed and developing country now has laws protecting consumers' rights to have quality products. And manufacturers have a duty to care for consumers. Even a service provider company has the same duty. And consumers have rights to have quality services.
The British who ruled us for around 200 years also enacted some laws such as the Sale of Goods Act 1930, the Dangerous Drug Act 1930 and the Trade Marks Act 1940 for protecting consumers' rights.
More laws were enacted during the period of undivided Pakistan and later independent Bangladesh.
One is very significant-- the Consumer Rights Protection Act, 2009, which deals with consumer affairs. This law provides for both civil and criminal remedies. A consumer is entitled to lodge complaints with the Consumer Rights Protection Department for any violation of his/ her rights guaranteed by the law.
At the district level, all deputy commissioners are empowered to exercise the same power as given to the department to ensure consumers' rights to have products free from adulteration or contamination.
If you win the legal battle by filing a complaint, the food safety authorities may impose fines on the concerned food or service provider. And you will receive 25 percent of the realised fine as compensation.
All this has now become possible for the lady who moved the court seeking justice around 130 years ago.
So, the other side of the influenza epidemic has left an immense impact on our daily lives.
What Albert Einstein said "in the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity" is more or less applicable to the current coronavirus pandemic too.
The present crisis has sown the seeds for some changes in some major sectors such as healthcare and the economy. The virus has exposed the fragile state of healthcare system in many of the countries that are scrambling to contain the spread of the virus. They may think of investing more in building a strong healthcare system.
Countries hit hard by disruption of the supply chain and exports due to the pandemic will think about diversification of their import sources and export products too.
The other significant message the pandemic delivered is that the growing economic inequality has gradually made us ill-prepared to combat a major crisis. We noticed how in many global cities, including in Dhaka, rich people started hoarding essentials while low income people were struggling to meet their daily necessities.
We may have forgotten that well-off people cannot remain safe during the pandemic if the masses are not safe. This is why economists and global health experts have recently called on G20 leaders to provide trillions of dollars to poorer countries to shore up ailing healthcare systems and economies, or face a disaster that will rebound on wealthier states through migration and health crises.
The underlying message of their joint statement is clear and strong: you cannot stay safe alone in the time of a pandemic.