The struggle to save lives from the killer coronavirus seems endless. The death procession looks unstoppable. Each day comes with more shocking news. The ray of hope that was coming through with the rollout of the vaccine is diminishing fast with the rising number of deaths.
In such circumstances, the government announced a week-long lockdown on April 5. With a gap of two days in between, the government imposed another week-long lockdown from April 14. It is likely that the government may extend the lockdown for another week. According to doctors and health experts, to have an impactful outcome in terms of reduction in the number of infection cases and deaths, two to three weeks of lockdown is needed. If that is the case, there is no option but to enforce such closure. But like last year's general holiday for 66 days, the lockdown has again given rise to a lot of commotion on logical grounds. How will this lockdown be made effective? What will happen to the workers in the informal sector? Could we not think about any other option? Will the government provide support to the poor and the daily wage earners? Is the health ministry taking adequate preparation to handle the increasing number of patients alongside the lockdown? Unfortunately, we do not have convincing answers to these questions.
Hence the old issues come back when we talk about how to deal with the second wave of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many countries have experienced second, even third waves of the pandemic. Some managed well, most could not and are still grappling with the crisis. Those that have succeeded to flatten the infection curve, were not successful because of the lockdown, but a combination of multiple measures. They did massive testing, tracing, followed strict health protocols, quarantine, travel bans, vaccination, etc. Additionally, they provided treatment.
What kind of lockdown have we had?
Time and again, it has been pointed out that no matter how strict the lockdown is intended to be, it turns out to be relaxed in the end. Certain offices and activities are allowed to function, and people find excuses to go out. And lockdown affects the poor much more than others. Just take a tour around the city. The big restaurants are selling iftar in full scale. The line of cars in front of those establishments will give some idea. But the roadside food sellers have to close their business. Coffee shops are offering takeaways. But roadside tea stalls are closed. Grocery shops are open for a limited time. But the vegetable vendors are not allowed to stand on the road.
So please support the poor and the people in the informal sector
While imposing the lockdown, a well-thought-plan must be in place. The poor and the affected small income groups in the informal economy should be provided with direct cash and food support. In 2020, an amount of Tk 1,250 crore was allocated for direct cash transfer. Under this, a total of 50 lakh households were to be provided Tk 2,500 as cash support. This was inadequate. Moreover, the full amount is yet to be disbursed. Recently, a fiscal support of Tk 1,200 crore has been announced for the poor. This will be implemented in fiscal year 2021-22. While this is a welcome move, the amount that is required is much greater, given the number of people living in poverty and the number of new poor. Even if the official extreme poverty rate, which is about 11 percent of the total population, is considered, the coverage should be approximately 16.5 million people. However, the pandemic has added new poor to the group who also need support.
Simple measures bring good results
Health experts view that in order to contain the spread of the coronavirus, there is no need for countrywide lockdown. Only the hotspots where infection rate is high can have movement restrictions during certain periods. Besides, inter-district public transport should be closed during the lockdown and mobility within the city should be limited too. Most important is instilling the habit of maintaining health protocols among the people from all social strata. Awareness for wearing masks, cleaning hands and avoiding social gathering is still very low across all socio-economic categories. "No mask, no service" type of initiatives should be introduced and implemented strictly. For the poor, free masks and sanitisers should be available in visible public places.
Vaccination drive and engagement of more companies
Parallelly, vaccination must be continued. Till now, vaccination has been concentrated among the urban educated people. There is less enthusiasm among a large number of people. The poor and the rural people feel they are immune to the pandemic. Many of them also do not have confidence in the vaccine. However, there are many people who want to be vaccinated but do not know how to get that done.
The current supply is inadequate even for those who are willing to take the vaccine. Already, inequality in vaccination is visible. Such inequality prevails between male and female, rural and urban, and the rich and poor. Health experts recommended for covering at least 80 percent of the population under vaccination. Several countries have resorted to vaccine nationalism to keep doses for their own nationals first. Though Bangladesh will receive vaccines from COVAX, that will not be enough. Therefore, the government should explore the availability of other vaccine options from other countries. Also, more private companies should be allowed to import vaccines. Those which have the capacity, should also be given permission to manufacture the major Covid medicines so that prices come down to an affordable level for the larger population.
No time to waste for improving health infrastructure
The above initiatives, however, does not undermine the need for improving the healthcare facilities to treat Covid patients. In 2020, when the pandemic broke out in Bangladesh, we excused ourselves by saying that we were not prepared to deal with such a massive health catastrophe. Much has been discussed throughout the period on improving the health infrastructure and higher resource allocation to tackle the emergency. Alas, after more than a year, we are still not prepared. There are not enough intensive care units (ICU) and oxygen in the hospitals. Suggestions for setting up field hospitals and isolation centres were not taken up seriously. So, patients even from the privileged section of the society, are being denied hospital treatment due to a lack of capacity.
Engage the non-state actors
The number of doctors, nurses and health workers is also insufficient, which is putting tremendous pressure on the existing health professionals. Sadly, the need for involving the community in managing this overwhelming health disaster was not felt by the policymakers. Bangladesh has been applauded for managing its natural disasters despite its limited financial resources. This has been possible due to the partnership of the government, the non-government organisations, and the private sector. Of course, the role of the government becomes much more prominent during such crises, as it has to allocate resources and take bold decisions. However, implementation of the humongous tasks to tackle the pandemic requires involvement of all non-state actors too.
Restore trust with the people through whole-of-government response
Clearly, people are in despair now. The government has to move fast to attend to the health requirement of Covid patients. The health ministry has to put its head, heart and hand together in addressing the ongoing health crisis. But it is not only the responsibility of one ministry alone. It is an urgent issue for all ministries and departments as the health problem has created multi-dimensional problems. So, the ministries such as disaster management and relief, finance, planning, agriculture, industry, commerce, education, women and children, rural development, local government, science and technology, and many others will have to work together in a coordinated manner. We need a whole-of-government response at this critical juncture.
Dr Fahmida Khatun is the Executive Director at the Centre for Policy Dialogue. She is also the Editorial Board member of Journal of Governance, Security and Development.
This article was originally published The Daily Star. Views in this article are author’s own and do not necessarily reflect CGS policy.