Dhaka Courier

Governance crisis in the age of corona

Police members wear protective equipment as they patrol the streets during the nationwide lockdown as a preventive measure against the Coronavirus outbreak, in Dhaka, Bangladesh, AP/UNB file photo

Every institution is facing a test of usefulness and relevance as the corona virus inches towards a feared deluge within, possibly, weeks. Everyone is hoping that some miracle will spare Bangladesh and it will avoid a colossal disaster but sadly the global scene doesn’t say so. No matter how small or big the death and suffering rates are, the damage will be significant even transitioning at many levels.

Everyone is a potential victim and the privileged feel safe for the time being but as the UK and other parts of Europe show, just about no one is safe.

Can the amla brigade handle such a crisis?

Bangladesh was not prepared and some think more time was focused in celebrating the centenary rather than preparing for the inevitable. But it's not just Bangladesh but the whole world was caught off guard. The Government did cancel most events centred on the centenary which is praiseworthy. But it’s also obvious that the necessary attention to epidemic preparation was missing that is obvious now. From kits to PPE to hospital preparations weren't there. And the panic today is the result of what didn’t happen yesterday. But this is structural. Our health can’t cope with such disasters.

If the death toll rises sharply in April and May as feared, it will challenge the system of governance as a whole. Infection and death rates estimated by various international agencies for Bangladesh are too extreme for mentioning. Suffice to say the casualty, direct and indirect, will be very high. And no institution will remain unscathed.

The national administration system will be the worst hit as the emergency handling capacity of the system seems weak. This is much much bigger than not managing a national election with low turn out as a major example of national administrative mobilization. The crisis will impact on the government’s perceived ability of how well it can run the state.

With a low investment in public health not to mention hospital services management, even if the performance is positive the situation is already damaging the reputation of the government. Till date it looks like an untested administration of amla led loyalists who are better at bullying the poor for not wearing masks than managing an epidemic.

Global scenario and growth rates

The capacity to handle such a crisis is beyond that of most governments globally as the response of the US and Europe minus Germany shows. China did it and also Korea and Taiwan but others have failed. European and US failure is horrific. Their scenario is akin to disasters that usually happen in the developing world though never at this scale. However, this also shows that the old order is changing. The Western world has met a nemesis which neither military nor trade clout than counter.

Bangladesh’s ruling class should also be aware of the fragility of political power as the pandemic has shown. If Europe can be felled in a matter of weeks, every administration is vulnerable. That means the only protection and security political ruling classes can have is by providing the same to its citizens. Nobody will say that it happens adequately in Bangladesh.

Growth rates, membership of middle income countries and the economic miracle that is declared by the powers that be regularly now rings hollow. One of the most disturbing aspects of the epidemic is the economic disaster that has already hit the Bangladeshi poor.

Dhaka has seen more than a million depart from the city as the lockdown came in, almost all poor. That is roughly the size of the very poor living in the capital city which is always boasting of their wealth. Some from Gulshan may have run away to the West but the poor have to the villages making sure that infection increases there now as social level infection is guaranteed.

Economics drove the people away which makes all claims about prosperity difficult to accept. If so many millions are left behind while a few become rich, to whom did the fruits of prosperity go?. A pro-rich economic system works well till a crisis intervenes and Bangladesh is facing that. Equitable growth is not a matter of ideology but a function of efficiency. Such disbalanced economic systems don’t work. Can an administration so rife with corruption and “loyalism” deliver services in times of such an unprecedented crisis?

Three defining incidents

The administration’s orientation was showcased by three incidents. The sight of elderly people made to hold their ears under the supervision of the local officials, the order to monitor media by the bureaucracy and the failure of the health ministry to respond to public demand for testing. Authorities had to withdraw one official, one order and is facing criticism for low testing.

The Government’s credibility at this point will be won or lost by the health ministry and what they say but at this point it looks rather lost. By stating that there are no virus cases it may have tried to look good  but so few cases make that claim unacceptable. No one believed them even if it’s true and that is part of the problem.

Things are not dire yet at this point of time but April promises to be a very cruel month followed by a possibly more horrendous May and people are scared. Sadly mass media  was more busy producing panic than providing accurate and sober factuality. In such an environment, only the hardened or the lucky will survive.

But once the epidemic goes away as it will though not sure when, people will ask what happened? Just as traditional supremacy of the West is gone, there will be configurations in every aspect of life including in Bangladesh. Let’s hope everyone passes that test and survives to handle the next inevitable epidemic.

  • Governance crisis in the age of corona
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 39
  • Afsan Chowdhury
  • DhakaCourier

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