Bangla Thursday, August 13, 2020

COVID-19: No option but to accept the bounty and bane of nature

As the coronavirus crisis spreads to various parts of the world, many questions beyond health are also popping up. At the first level, it is a health issue. But it is also an issue of global management systems and their ability to cope with it. 

Country after country is falling under its shadow. Both infection and death rates continue to climb. Europe, Asia, or Africa, no continent is spared, raising questions about globalization and its ramifications. The established world order is changing and a new one is emerging which raises questions about how countries will fare in the future. 

Bangladesh hit too 

Bangladesh is seeing more scare than actual COVID-19 cases. The number of patients is not even in the double digits. Many are suspected to have come into contact with affected people outside the country. They are now spending time in quarantine. It is true that public confidence in the health sector is low, given its responses to the annual vector borne epidemics like Dengue and Chikungunya. There is no health crisis to report for the moment but it is inevitable that Bangladesh too will see a spike in cases, given the very large number of migrant workers in the highly affected zones including Europe. 

Many arrivals are undocumented. Many re-entered before checking was initiated at the airports and the sea and land entry points. It is a fact of life in a remittance-driven economy. 

How the economy will deal with the crisis remains to be seen. It is too early to say if Bangladesh has the capacity to manage the health aspect and minimize losses. But given the extreme population density, caution is needed while making predictions. No one will know the pitch until it is tested. 

Economy affected

The virus has so far spared Bangladesh. As yet, none has been detected with the disease. While caution is being very seriously exercised, no projects where Chinese personnel are involved have been shut down. Officials have expressed anxiety but are now more realistic. The damage could be less than feared at first. But China is not the main problem for Bangladesh. It is the Middle East, Malaysia and the European labor markets which are the problem. 

That till date, the affected people are mostly Italy returnees means that Bangladesh is vulnerable to health management scenarios elsewhere too, which wasn’t even an issue a month back. It is obvious that Europe lacks the ability to manage such a health crisis. It is not just Italy but Germany and the UK which are also in crisis. Bangladeshis are there in all these countries as workers so they will be affected and that will impact on Bangladesh at many levels. 

This effect will be a long term one. This means the economies will be drawn back and external hiring will be less. That will impact Bangladesh’s remittance economy in a major way. Meanwhile, the Ready Made Garments (RMG) sector which was floundering, has been hit as predicted. So the bells of anxiety at different levels are ringing loud. This includes the homes of the workers. So if the RMG sector, as well as remittances, are affected, the impact will be across class, groups and the rural-urban divide. 

Loss of security for all 

This scenario is of course not limited to Bangladesh. What the coronavirus crisis has shown is that the sense of security that existed in the world particularly among the well-off countries was not firmly grounded. Globalization is all about movement and that means more people mixing, which can translate into disease and death at times. 

Such epidemics are not strangers at all in history and millions have died in past pillages. But the difference is that the ability to handle crises is higher now. But economies and societies are also more fragile now as most are industrial and therefore inter-linked and integrated. In these circumstances , industries take the brunt and not so much agriculture. Agriculture-driven economies, which are less dependent on global demand and supply, weather such global crises better. 

Governance management questions 

China has shown that the command and control system that it has evolved, has helped it a great deal to cope with the virus which is on the wane there. However, Europe and elsewhere have a different management system. The next few months will be a test for these various systems. Do free-wheeling political societies or the closed ones do better in such situations, is a question to consider. Inevitably it will turn into a political debate with long term implications. 

For Bangladesh, on the fringe of its all, it is a very testing time. That the main ceremony of the centenary of Bangladesh’s founder Sk. Mujibur Rahman had to be postponed speaks volumes about the depth of the crisis. It was the most important politico-cultural event since 1971, to observe which the entire state machinery was deployed. The reality of the virus shows that even today, the natural world holds sway and everyone has to learn to live with it, its bounty and its banes equally.