The disquieting statement of the director general of Health Services, Dr Abul Kalam Azad, has acted to stir a hornet’s nest among Bangladeshis regarding the COVID-19 pandemic’s local outbreak. At the daily Coronavirus briefing on June 18, the DG -who himself has fought the virus, and was back doing the briefing himself after weeks- chose the occasion to deliver what would seem to have been a very deliberate and considered, obviously prepared statement.
It was all very alarmist, from the presentation, to the sentiments, to the picture it painted. But the bit that set the alarm bells really clanging on all the evening news bulletins was his advice to his fellow citizens to buckle up, if you like, for something that lasts 2-3 years. I say ‘something’ because on this point he was indeed less clear. Does he mean the period till we’re probably able to get our hands on a vaccine? Just this first wave? Three years to peak? Or maybe till herd immunity? At a time when other countries are starting to worry about the possibility of second waves or spikes, this was never going to go down well. Although the DG made no direct correlation, he did mention the combination of dense population and highly contagious virus; lamented the apparent refusal among the public to observe the safety rules (even though almost everyone you see on the road these days is wearing at least a mask).
The DG would have retained far more credibility if he managed to utter some home truths at that point, regarding the response of the government - including the executive, and the health bureaucracy - and thus acknowledging their own role, in what had turned out to be a monumental failure. It made his hasty exit at the end of the statement look more like an act of washing your hands of a problem, of abdicating leadership. At this point, it is unclear what Dr Azad wishes to achieve by holding on to his position.
It came at a time when the country was already at edge, having drifted along since the lifting of lockdown at the start of June without any real strategy or shield against the virus. A colour-coded zoning system, courtesy of a team of European epidemiologists, was set to take effect, we kept hearing, time and again. And yet here we are, nearly three weeks on, still at the mercy of the invisible virus. Let us hope for better leadership.