Que sera sera: With holidays and fruit baskets, people of Bangladesh tackle Covid-19

Fairuz Haque | Updated on May 22, 2020

Exodus: Bangladeshis felt safer in their villages than at the quarantine camp   -  REUTERS/MOHAMMAD PONIR HOSSAIN

Bangladeshis line up with fruit baskets for quarantined patients and tend to treat the Covid-19 pandemic like any other viral infection that kills hundreds every monsoon

* The idea of staying home played out somewhat differently in my other home in Bangladesh

* Bangladeshis were dealt with half-hearted instructions on self-isolation

“Go home and stay home” — the Canadian prime minister used his sternest schoolmaster voice to warn people of the dangers of Covid-19. I, among other Canadians, largely listened and went inside, the risks of contagion drilled into our hearts and minds through multiple daily briefings, first by PM Justin Trudeau, then public health officers and government leaders. Of course, a range of targeted social programmes — including benefits for employees and emergency wage subsidies for employers — provided many people with the financial means to stay home.

The idea of staying home played out somewhat differently in my other home in Bangladesh, on the other side of the world. In Bangladesh, a country of 180 million, with more than 1,000 people per sq km, achieving the desired level of physical distancing is highly challenging. Additionally, given that 87.4 per cent of the total employed (aged 15 and above) work in the informal sector, many in daily wage occupations, the idea of staying indoors for more than a couple of days is unthinkable.

In Bangladesh, the logistical challenges of physical distancing came with incomplete, and mostly incorrect, information about the disease. Bangladeshis were dealt with half-hearted instructions on self-isolation, without any viable guidance on how to proceed, making the whole exercise futile. Most people gained knowledge of Covid-19 through Facebook posts and other social media forwards and did what made most sense to them. They proceeded to stock up on lemons (to be had frequently, squeezed into warm water mixed with honey), so much so that lemon prices soared within days.

In late March, the first notion of a soft lockdown arrived through school closures, and was marked by throngs of people leaving Dhaka, the capital city, for the seaside town of Cox’s Bazar and the northern hilly region of Sylhet. On being asked about their decision to turn the pandemic closure into bonus vacations, one of the tourists simply said to a TV reporter that she was confident in her heart that she was quite safe, and, in any case, life and death have already been decided by higher powers above.

This que sera sera — what will be, will be — approach to life itself is really underscored by an absence of any expectation from the authorities, and a rather understandable distrust of the establishment. This might explain the not-so-massive success of the quarantine of returning migrant labourers. Migrant labourers back from Italy were placed in quarantine in a large camp by the Dhaka Airport, and soon there were media reports of many fleeing the camp for their villages. They felt safer in their villages than the quarantine camp.

Bangladeshis treat Covid-19 just as any other viral infection that kills hundreds of people every monsoon; which is why extended family members have been visiting quarantined foreign-returnees with tropical fruits and apples, the traditional sick-bed formality items in Bangladesh. Media reports showed crowds gathered in front of houses where people were kept in quarantine, attempting to get an understanding of the exotic nature of the isolation process. In fact, it has been noted that the fastest way to get a crowd anywhere in Bangladesh now is to spread the word of a quarantined person in the vicinity.

This intense need to be involved is ever-present in the hearts and minds of Bengalis, and this was showcased most appropriately in the case of a lost-and-found Covid-19 patient. As already established, cases of people fleeing healthcare establishments are all too common. This patient, too, disappeared from a treatment centre one day. So, according to media reports, four young Bangladeshis (with no known medical or law enforcement affiliation) went searching for the patient, found him, and brought him back to the hospital. The villagers celebrated this joyous outcome by carrying the daring bounty hunters on their shoulders and holding a victory rally all around the village. Selling them the idea of physical distancing is a courageous endeavour indeed.

Yet, this spirit of volunteerism has always helped Bangladesh in its most trying times. During the pandemic, this has been manifested through a group that has created a quasi-supply chain of food products between the Capital and the north of the country, bringing vegetables into the city and leaving them for the innumerable day labourers who have seen their livelihood vanish within days. With grave risks to their own well-being, there are individuals attempting to fill some of the gaps in the healthcare system, checking temperatures and other symptoms of Covid-19 among daily wage earners. Many are raising funds for meals to be provided to those in need. While temporary, in a city such as Dhaka, one meal makes a world of difference to many.

Bangladesh has already opened up many of its businesses for Eid. While this move will definitely provide some avenues for much-needed income, it is also likely to be accompanied by an upward movement of the curve for new Covid-19 cases. With inadequate testing and healthcare capacities at this point, it truly seems that kindness of the higher powers might be the people’s best hope.

Fairuz haque is a public policy researcher living in Ontario, Canada. She is originally from Dhaka and has immediate and extended family there

Published on May 22, 2020

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