Systemic flaws set to outlive the coronavirus and trouble Bangladesh
Political life has been slowing down for a while but it has come to a standstill during the corona crisis. Most people are concerned about both life and livelihood rather than how things are managed. Dissident voices are finding few takers.
Amidst all this, the government of Bangladesh has informed people that it is not going to accept any criticism that is “personally insulting to its leaders.” Several have been arrested under the Digital Security Act (DSA) and are currently in jail awaiting police investigations. So political advantage seeking by the opposition has not materialized.
The message that is coming though is that there can be life without Opposition party politics. Or to be a little more general, without politics itself. And not many are complaining.
As always, the biggest opposition party, the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP), is in the doldrums as space for political activity doesn’t exist. In fact, the political space that exists is only the virtual one. So, Facebook has become the new political “maidan” where everyone gathers to discuss, abuse and make their point. The physical political space, weakening for long, is now not much in existence due to the virus crisis.
Initially, several groups which were critical of the government were active but they are fading away or have already faded. One group, a sort of Leftist/elitist mix, was active with statements and FB posts but in the current environment these can be ignored. For them FB posts are the only option and even that is fading.
Several other groups were active, mixing relief work and political positions, but the arrest of several persons and diminished access to the judicial system have meant moving courts is far more difficult than before. It has dampened the Opposition scene and the ruling party looks stronger than ever.
But this doesn’t mean that the government is not stumbling. It is, and it knows that. However, none of the criticisms amounts to a threat to the regime. Hence, from a political point of view, government has never been safer. The accusations and counter accusations between two bank owner groups are a bad advertisement but not a political threat. However, political safety is no guarantee of good state management and therefore corona and post corona challenges are mounting.
Political economy of lockdown
Advanced economies have been pushed to ease lockdowns due to both social and economic pressures. Bangladeshi and other South Asian economies also couldn’t sustain the lockdown for long without putting a significant section of the population under stress. A recent survey conducted by various development agencies including BRAC, PPRC, as well as the IMF, has said that the majority of the poor have lost income very significantly.
This is a stark reminder of the coping capacity of the poor in Bangladesh. Given this situation, restarting of economic activities was needed. But what was missing was a more robust exertion of the lockdown, on for the last two months. Thus, no serious gains could be made by the same as most people flouted the lockdown. Now, with more easing and semi-open movement, infection is spreading.
This puts further pressure on the already beleaguered case management scene. The public health structure is not robust and can’t manage a large surge particularly in the rural areas. Hospital facilities barely exist outside the large cities. So if there is a surge, containing death rates would be a very tough ask.
Politics of governance
It is true that the Bangladesh government, like almost every government in the world, was unprepared. But why it has not exerted itself more has to do with governance priorities. The primary health care sector has not been a priority.
Urban health care is already overwhelmed and patients are being turned way from hospitals. The panic about the disease is so high that many families abandon their members if they suspect corona. So, not only is society ignorant but no counter ignorance public health information campaign has been successful, if launched.
These are not hardcore party political issues but relate to the nature of the state which appears lacking both in skills and capacity to manage the crisis.
Where the crisis does show, the system that propos up the state is weak and the state needs capacity building. That is not apolitical party task but a state politics task. It is here that the enemy lives and is threatening all of us. The corona crisis will waft away one day but the flaws may remain. That’s what should worry all including the ruling class. It is not Bangladesh’s problem alone but global.