A pandemic has grasped Dhaka city.
As I was returning home after a meeting with a young film-maker friend of mine, we both suddenly realized a worried rush in the wind. The air was somewhat moist and the wind was blowing hard, but a feeling was rushing from mind to mind, pacing the streets like a phantom.
That was the paranoia of the coronavirus.
Coronavirus (or Covid-19) became a real crisis in Bangladesh in the last two weeks. Even partisan activists who usually focus on political issues like border killings, CAA, and NRC, are now focusing on the coronavirus epidemic.
Because this has, successfully, caused pandemonium in the city.
The streets are emptying up as soon as dusk. This does not happen in this city. Junctions like the TSC square are always active, hustling and bustling with young academics, students, doctors, and politicians.
But today, even the lone activist, Nasir Abdullah, who had been staging a sit-in protest against border killing on the spot for more than a month now, was sitting silent, alone.
Has he contracted the disease? It is possible, even if I earnestly pray otherwise. But what is more possible is that the whole city, around him, has contracted an unease, and it will take some time to release the tensions.
In these times, it is hard to trust anyone, let alone the government. Many rumours are floating around. Some claim over a hundred cases, some claim dozens — but everyone is suspicious of the “other.” And the other is constituted through the use of a mask.
There are various kinds of masks available in the market right now. A Farmgate vendor was selling masks at Tk30 per piece. It was a fancy mask with a blow-hole through which one can breathe.
But was it worth 30tk? I pulled on the elastic as I asked myself this question, and the elastic broke. Embarrassed, I tried to apologize, but the vendor started apologizing first and quickly went into an angry mode.
To appease him, I bought the mask for Tk30. But will it save me from coronavirus? More importantly, would it save him?
He would have to sell masks on the streets as long as the pandemic exists in order to maximize his profit. Therefore, if capitalism fully existed, he would be the last man standing, trying to sell red, black, and blue masks to corpses.
But even there is a competition. My friend, and a Muktiforum member, Arman Hossain has decided to take part in the competition of death. He borrowed some money from us and started his mask business.
He says that he is distributing many for free and selling even more at a “just price.” I asked him what the just price was, and he said “Whatever you think is just, bhai.”
Another friend of ours, Mizanur Rahman bhai, who has been working on community-related issues such as safe drinking water and environmental issues for a long time, has taken up the responsibility to make people aware about the crisis so that they do not panic and take proper help.
But the proper help is hard to get.
The government has not exactly been transparent about the extent of the crisis. The long lines in Dhaka Medical and other hospitals in the city prove that the resources are inadequate.
Our government does not seem to be prepared for an epidemic of this size. As one of the basic needs of a citizen, health care has been neglected in the national budget for a long time now.
But the government is finally tackling the crisis and trying to mitigate it. That is a very good sign.
This is our test as a nation. Can we truly contain this disease? Maybe we can, but the government seems unprepared to do so.
In the absence of a proper plan, people are running from one area of the megacity to the other, and then towards a place of comfort: Their village home.
Because it is hard and costly for many people to get clinically tested for coronavirus, many are possibly carrying the germs with them when they visit their loved ones.
This is a huge crisis. Through this familial emotion, coronavirus in Bangladesh will probably spread like wildfire, and the government must be alert to stop it as soon as possible.
Covid-19 is a non-discriminating virus. It may first be contracted by global workers who send remittance and visit their home during these tough times. But through this gesture of love, they are probably increasing the risk of the virus being spread.
As such, I think the disease is spreading in a cycle.
It is first being contracted by the lower to upper-middle class, who need to shake hands and go abroad for their livelihood.
Then the disease is transferring from the comparatively rich to the comparatively poor to the poorest to the subaltern. It may seem like I am saying that the rich are immune to the virus, but coronavirus will not spare the wealthiest either.
As such, let us all be honest with each other. Those who can afford to be tested must get tested and save their family first. Then, they should think about their community.
And that is where the government must come in. That is where the government must be pressured to act for the public good and make medical services open to the masses, at least for those who have no other means in their hands.
After all, we do want to see Bangladesh as a welfare state. Properly treating a national epidemic can be the first step towards that.
Anupam Debashis Roy is the author of “Not All Springs End Winter.” He is also an editor and organizer at Muktiforum.
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