With current Covid-19 pandemic flaring up across 210 countries in the world, millions of poor people are already affected and more so in the developing world.
Covid-19 by now, is no longer about health but became a social issue particularly for the low-income people and people living in vulnerable life condition in the developing countries. In the context of Covid-19 pandemic, Persons with Disabilities (PWDs) may have increased risk for exposure, complications, and death because of a number of factors.
First, they are disproportionately represented among older populations and at increased risk of pandemic. More than 46% of the world’s population of 60-plus age have disabilities. Secondly, children and adults with disabilities may have underlying health conditions that increase their risk of serious complications from COVID-19. Thirdly, people with disabilities are disproportionately represented among the world’s people living in poverty.
Impacts of COVID-19 are likely to even worsen the situation of the people in lower socio-economic groups.
People with disabilities in the developing countries are most vulnerable due to spread of the invisible ‘killer’ called novel coronavirus. Disability (12 types) causes marginalization and deprivation of a human and hinders living a life in dignity. In Bangladesh, as per Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2016, nearly 6.94% population of Bangladesh are PWDs. All these people face multiple layers of deprivation at this period particularly in job opportunity and secured income.
Rights and Protection of Persons with Disabilities Act 2013 fortunately prompted a positive change in social attitude coupled with policy support. Consequently, skilled People with disabilities could secure jobs in Ready-Made Garments, Banking, Social Services, Small Business andother sectors. On the contrary, several studies conducted to assess the situation of employment of PWDs in Bangladesh and factors influencing them show that people with disabilities are at a greater disadvantage, experiencing significant difficulties at this time of COVID-19 pandemic. Quarantine, health facilities and transport established as part of the COVID-19 response may fail to cater to the requirements of children and adults living with disabilities.
People have already started experiencing fragile conditions. With lockdown all over the country and shrinking economic activities; fear of hunger and frustration among low-income people is boiling. While normal people are capable of having access into local philanthropy support, people with disabilities cannot readily access into those nor do they have the physical capability to compete for cash or kind support.
Media reports claim that RMG sector has lost supply order of apparels worth 3 billion US dollars. Brunt of this economic turmoil is inevitably going to push the low-income quintal of the labor force towards negative coping strategies e.g. going without food, selling household goods for purchasing foods and essentials. The wrath of the economic boil down however, would be extreme on the people with disabilities as they have no option but to depend on others for their survival.
Disability focused organizations including mainstream voluntary social organizations working to promote, protect and assist in upholding rights of the PWDs in Bangladesh have come together to join hands with the government for the prevention and protection of the people with disabilitiesfrom COVID-19. Some activities being undertaken by local and national organizations include health literacy and door to door counselling, foods and hygiene packets distribution, collaboration and coordination etc.
The Government of Bangladesh has taken all measures within its capacity to save the population from this pandemic. The National Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19 is a laudable guiding document. Feeding 5 million people with food support including support for PWDs is another pro-poor step. Economic stimulus package for the RMG workers will reduce suffering of the extreme and low-income people of the country.
However, there are areas where we can collectively contribute to fill in the gaps. Bangladesh Television broadcasts its news bulletins in sign language to reach out to the hearing impaired. All the private television channels should broadcast their news bulletins with sign language interpretation upholding the spirit of ‘leaving no one behind.’
Engagement of disability focused organisations in the preparedness and response plans (focusing the needs of different types of disabilities) including implementation process is necessary to fulfill the objectives of the National Preparedness and Response Plan for COVID-19.
Participation of the disability focused organisations and voluntary social organizations at the local level in designing and delivering of prevention and response plans and decision-making will ensure social equity. Women suffer the most in any disaster. Similarly, women with disabilities are likely to have been more vulnerable during this lockdown situation. Therefore, special attention needs to be given to protect and safeguard the women with disabilities at all levels.
Quota for cash or food support for people with disabilities is highly recommended as it will ensure rights and entitlements for them amongst those competing to have access into public or private resources. Door-step delivery should be ensured for free or at affordable rates.
Coordination and Cooperation between and among disability focused organisations and voluntary social organizations is desired to avoid any overlap or duplication of limited resources. Access to aid and devices for persons with disabilities during the lockdown should be made available. Support services, personal assistance, physical and communication accessibility must be ensured by public and private service providers for those persons with disabilities affected.
Provisions should be made for those people with disabilities who do not have disability certificates that they can avail uninterrupted government services. There should be separate rehabilitation and quarantine centers for people with disabilities. Trained and qualified health professionals should be engaged to deal with people with disabilities when quarantined.
And finally, we must keep in mind that people with disabilities in need of health services due to COVID-19 must not be deprioritized on the ground of their disability.
(The views and opinions expressed herein are of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect those of UNB. Amrita Rejina Rozario, is the Country Director of Sightsavers Bangladesh Country Office. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Only by coming together will the world be able to face down the COVID-19 pandemic and its shattering consequences. At an emergency virtual meeting last Thursday, G20 leaders took steps in the right direction. But we are still far away from having a coordinated, articulated global response that meets the unprecedented magnitude of what we are facing.
Far from flattening the curve of infection, we are still well behind it. The disease initially took 67 days to infect 100,000 people; soon, 100,000 people and more will be infected daily. Without concerted and courageous action, the number of new cases will almost certainly escalate into the millions, pushing health systems to the breaking point, economies into a nosedive and people into despair, with the poorest hit hardest.
We must prepare for the worst and do everything to avoid it. Here is a three-point call to action -- based on science, solidarity and smart policies -- for doing just that.
First, suppress transmission of the coronavirus.
That requires aggressive and early testing and contact tracing, complemented by quarantines, treatment, and measures to keep first responders safe, combined with measures to restrict movement and contact. Such steps, despite the disruptions they cause, must be sustained until therapies and a vaccine emerge.
Crucially, this robust and cooperative effort should be guided by the World Health Organization, a member of the United Nations family; countries acting on their own – as they must for their people – will not get the job done for all.
Second, tackle the devastating social and economic dimensions of the crisis.
The virus is spreading like wildfire, and is likely to move swiftly into the Global South, where health systems face constraints, people are more vulnerable, and millions live in densely populated slums or crowded settlements for refugees and internally displaced persons. Fuelled by such conditions, the virus could devastate the developing world and then re-emerge where it was previously suppressed. In our interconnected world, we are only as strong as the weakest health systems.
Clearly, we must fight the virus for all of humanity, with a focus on people, especially the most affected: women, older persons, youth, low-wage workers, small and medium enterprises, the informal sector and vulnerable groups.
The United Nations has just issued reports documenting how the viral contagion has become an economic contagion, and setting out the financing needed to address the shocks. The International Monetary Fund has declared that we have entered a recession as bad as or worse than in 2009.
We need a comprehensive multilateral response amounting to a double-digit percentage of global Gross Domestic Product.
Developed countries can do it by themselves, and some are indeed doing it. But we must massively increase the resources available to the developing world by expanding the capacity of the IMF, namely through the issuance of special drawing rights, and of the other international financial institutions so that they can rapidly inject resources into the countries that need them. I know this is difficult as nations find themselves increasing domestic spending by record amounts. But that spending will be in vain if we don’t control the virus.
Coordinated swaps among central banks can also bring liquidity to emerging economies. Debt alleviation must also be a priority – including immediate waivers on interest payments for 2020.
Third, recover better.
We simply cannot return to where we were before COVID-19 struck, with societies unnecessarily vulnerable to crisis. The pandemic has reminded us, in the starkest way possible, of the price we pay for weaknesses in health systems, social protections and public services. It has underscored and exacerbated inequalities, above all gender inequity, laying bare the way in which the formal economy has been sustained on the back of invisible and unpaid care labour. It has highlighted ongoing human rights challenges, including stigma and violence against women.
Now is the time to redouble our efforts to build more inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and other global challenges. The recovery must lead to a different economy. Our roadmap remains the 2030 Agenda and Sustainable Development Goals.
The United Nations system is fully mobilized: supporting country responses, placing our supply chains at the world’s disposal, and advocating for a global cease-fire.
Ending the pandemic everywhere is both a moral imperative and a matter of enlightened self-interest. At this unusual moment, we cannot resort to the usual tools. Extraordinary times demand extraordinary measures. We face a colossal test which demands decisive, coordinated and innovative action from all, for all.
(António Guterres is Secretary-General of the United Nations)
Thousands of Bangladeshis living in London have been passing days amid deep uncertainty due to the current situation caused by the outbreak of COVID-19.
The crisis also triggered panic buying of essentials and their abnormal price hike by some unscrupulous traders of the Bangladesh community, said Yunus Ali Sheikh, a Bangladeshi-origin British citizen, while narrating the condition of Bangladeshis in London amid the global coronavirus outbreak.
Yunus, also a former UNB journalist, said the main concern is now personal safety and the possibility of being unemployed as there are huge Bangladeshis in the UK who are doing contractual jobs, and they are going to be the worst sufferers.
“They won’t get money if there’s no work. And if there’s no money, they won’t get food. This is the main concern among the people who work on contractual basis,” Yunus observed.
“But”, he said, “There’re social safety net facilities…unemployed and small-income group get state benefits like Jobseeker’s Allowance, income tax credit etc. But these benefits are meant for only British citizens and there’re huge Bangladeshi origin migrated people who are not citizens yet. They work mainly in restaurants, fried chicken shops, and are in zero-hour contracts.”
Besides, Yunus said, the people of the Bangladesh community, who account for about 451,529, have stockpiled essential commodities from different stores being panicked of a possible lockdown.
“I came to know one Bangladeshi man has procured 42 sacks of rice weighing 20 kg each! Taking advantage of the situation, some Bangladeshi shop owners have hiked the prices of commodities. Earlier, the price of 20kg rice was 25 pounds which has been increased to 35-40 pounds abruptly.”
Besides, the price of a chicken has been raised to 20 pounds from 3.5 pounds.
“This tendency is mostly seen among Bangali shop owners,” said Yunus adding that making money in all situations is their common tendency.
But the scenario is different in the stores owned by the British, he said mentioning that they are offering various facilities to buyers so that the people of all ages can buy products at their convenient time.
Talking about religious gatherings, he said there was no Jum’a prayer in mosques in London as part of safety measures.
Asked whether the Bangladeshi High Commission there contacted them amid the crisis, he said there was an invitation from the embassy on the occasion of Mujib Year. However, later the programme was postponed.
On March 23, the British government restricted the movement of people to curb the spread of coronavirus as fears grew that people were not sufficiently respecting guidance on social distancing.
According to worldometer, the UK has so far reported 11,658 coronavirus cases and 578deaths linked to the virus.
I want to draw everyone's attention to time. It is running out fast.
With every passing moment, we are losing the opportunity we still have.
If we can comprehend the severity of the massive Corona war, we had better prepare ourselves appropriately. As our everyday life goes on today, it is very clear that we have not been able to present the picture of what is about to happen to the entire nation almost overnight. If we could enable people to comprehend the reality, we could motivate them to prepare for it right now. If they knew that their lives are in mortal danger, they would get ready to give out everything to fight for their lives. No sacrifice would seem to be too big. We must get everyone ready to fight for every single life. Together we can win. There is no scope for surrender. Surrender would mean enormous suffering and a huge number of deaths. That would be totally unacceptable. We must get ready to protect every single person. We must get ready with the best organizational and management preparations that we have, in every corner of this country.
It is stunning to see the victory march of the pandemic from one corner of the world to the entire world at lightning speed. China reported an unknown disease to the Beijing office of the World Health Organization on December 31, 2019. Today is March 22, 2020. This reporting was done only 82 days ago. In these 82 days, the virus has ravaged the whole world. Already in many countries army and para-military have been called in to cope with the unexpected situation. It has paralyzed country after country before in what seems like a blink of an eye. It forced people in city after city to take shelter in their homes, isolating themselves from their work, from their near and dear ones, for an unknown number of days.
Many governments who could afford it, sanctioned trillions of dollars to cope with the unexpected human disaster. Heads of all levels of governments are constantly on television and all other media outlets explaining to aggrieved citizens each step they are taking, and seeking their support in this dire emergency. All political parties in the parliaments are unanimously passing laws to combat the situation, making sure that the people have trust in them and remain calm, disciplined, and law-abiding. More than one country and many regional governments, city governments declared state of emergency to allow governments to apply all possible powers to fight the enemy. All around the world people are watching the Coronavirus’ scoreboard with utmost anxiety to see what is happening to whom. They are shocked by the soaring number of deaths every day. They feel relieved to see that in some countries the number of new cases has remained zero over some days.
It all happened in 82 days. It turned a ‘normal’ everyday world into a world which makes all of us feel like we are in a Hollywood horror movie. Nobody is excused.
We Are Lucky
We are lucky that we are not in the list of countries which have gone through this experience already. At least not yet. But we see the ominous signs of it quietly emerging in our country. We must thank our stars that we got 82 days to monitor all these countries where Corona devastation played out step by step, and how each country is struggling with their ingenuity, science, management skill, and determination to fight it out. We got 82 days to learn and prepare. That is our biggest advantage in this war against this deadly disease.
Now we cannot say we did not know it was coming, we did not know how to handle it; or that we did not know what works. If we have not learnt from the experiences of others we can blame only our disinterest. If we have kept our heads buried in the sand all these 82 days, then nobody can help us.
Corona Has no Mercy
Everyone wants to know how many people are infected by Coronavirus once it gets into a country or region. I give here two estimates on the high side, given by two leaders. One is Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany. She was very candid and bold. Before the German people had a chance to get used to the horror of Coronavirus, she went ahead to address the nation, to tell them what is coming. She told them that 60 to 70 percent of the population of Germany would be infected.
A very recent estimate that I want to present comes from the Governor of California in his speech on March 20, 2020. He informed the people of his state that the number of infected persons in California could reach 25 million in the next couple of months. That is, 56 percent of population in his state, in 2 months. The first person with infection in California was identified on January 22, 2020 exactly two months ago. That means, in just four months the number of infected persons would jump from a single person to 25 million. What a lightning speed! Corona has no mercy.
Southeast Asian Experience
A few countries have been able to combat Corona most successfully, among all countries around the world. These are all from Southeast Asia. China, where it all began, has emerged from this pandemic with great success. Reports on new cases have stopped coming for many days now. They accomplished it in 82 days!
Other countries which contained Corona successfully are: South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. All these successful countries followed one common strategy uncompromisingly. This uncompromising strategy was: identify the infected. Completely isolate him or her. Spare others from being infected. The virus will not spread if the infection stops. If we allow one person to infect others, then the number of infected will increase very quickly. Statistically speaking, if one person infects 2.5 people every 5 days, then he alone will infect 406 people in 7 days.
All these successful countries mobilized all their might to identify the infected, and kept them away from others. As a result, the bulk of the people in their countries were not affected. Today Coronavirus affliction has stopped in these countries. What great success stories.
The countries which failed to adopt this strategy are suffering endlessly. They are: Italy, US, UK, Spain, and Switzerland. Their situation is now out of their control. Total number of deaths in Italy has already surpassed the total number of deaths in China, a country with several times more population than Italy.
Which Way Will Bangladesh Go?
Which Way Will Bangladesh Go? The decision is ours to make. We have already missed great opportunities. But better late than never. We have to mobilize all the capacities of the nation to identify and isolate those who are infected. Even if we cannot be perfect, we can still save many lives. While each life is important, in Bangladesh many lives mean truly a great many lives. We have to devote fully to contain this infection. We do not have to wait to have perfect estimate of the percentage of population that will be infected, because all of us know any percentage of Bangladesh population is an unacceptably large number. Go ahead, try it out in your mind.
Is the Corona Flood Coming to Bangladesh?
Yes, it is almost at our doorstep. There is no example in the world where there were only a few infected persons one day, and somehow we never heard of more people getting infected in the following days. The global experience is it starts as a few drops, then if you let it proceed, it becomes a tsunami in weeks.
How do we hold back the Tsunami? Successful countries showed the way. Their formula is test, test, test. Isolate, isolate, isolate. Identify, isolate. Identify, isolate. Identify, isolate. Never stop doing it. WHO has been repeating the same formula globally umpteen times every day.
This formula reminds us of the old folklore of how the shoe was invented. In order to keep his feet free from dust, a king ordered his subjects to sweep the whole country. A tired subject frustratingly suggested to the King why does he not just cover his feet and keep it free from dust. The King liked the idea and got it done. The concept of the shoe was born.
Why not run after every person who is infected. Why don’t we go to the source of the infection. Keep them away from the masses of people. In the beginning, infected people are only a few. The task becomes very simple. They are the ones who will infect millions if they are not identified and isolated. We missed that chance at our airports when infected people started arriving from infected countries. Now they are scattered everywhere and remain untested. The demon of Corona is out of the bottle. Putting it back into bottle is our task. It is a big task now.
Obviously we are already late. But that does not mean we should give up. Giving up means committing mass suicide. We can still do our best to slow down the infection rate and slow down the death rate. We must commit everything we have as a nation to make that happen.
Unfortunately we do not have enough kits to identify the infected. We can start with what we have. Identifying even one person is important. If we can keep him in isolation we protect thousands in coming weeks. Let us not ignore one individual. We must use the kits now. Tomorrow its contribution to the fight will decrease sharply. Let us mobilize the international community to get more kits. People will be eager to know how many people are identified each day. People need to be informed to get them engaged.
Everybody knows how to prevent Corona, thanks to the communication technology. But we are not showing sufficient urgency. We know what it is, but we are not applying our knowledge. We are saying that physical distance is the only way to save oneself and to save others from this virus. But we do not mind holding a conference to announce these instructions, killing the very essence of the announcement. There is no consistency between what we are saying and what we are doing. Coronavirus is still just a subject of conversation, of news articles, and of TV talk shows. We are watching these, and reading these as if we watch and read news from distant countries. We do not feel It is happening in my family, in my house. I still cannot feel the shock of knowing that very soon, within weeks, I may be the cause of death of my family members. Or that one of them may be the cause of my death. The realization still does not come to us that protecting them from the virus ultimately protects me.
A lot of advice is being given out every day as a matter of routine work. People do not feel any sense of concerns behind those words. Even the people who give the advice not only publicly violate those advice but also publicize them without any feeling of guilt. Time of advising is long over. Now we are at the stage when we should be fighting the enemy the hardest. It is the time to build the resolve of the nation to stand up with all its might to confront possibly the greatest danger in the history of the world.
At this moment of the greatest crisis of the nation we do not see any round-the-clock work without any sleep, and without any food, to build the dam to protect everything we possess from the global Tsunami which we all see coming. One sees only a total lack of urgency and concern everywhere.
I am absolutely intrigued by one question: Are we really so unconcerned about saving our family members, relatives, our friends, and even ourselves, that we show no interest in stopping it? Or we are just in a dreamworld where we think this nightmare cannot be true, or do we think it is a part of fake news campaign.
The Students and The Youth
Always my hope is in the youth of this country. This is the time for them to stand up and save our families, and our country. I appeal to the youth to come forward on their own and build their initiatives as they feel appropriate. Today’s youth are super human beings. You are equipped with such technologies that the world has not seen before. Each one of you has unlimited convening power. You can bring the whole world together. Mobilize the youth of Bangladesh, mobilize the youth of the whole world. Save the world. Save Bangladesh. Save the humanity. Build the world the way you want. Be conscious about the unlimited power you possess. This is the time to use it. If you don’t use it NOW, it will never be used. Organize yourselves to save your para (neighbourhood), your village, your upojela, your district. And in the process, save the whole country. You already know what to do. Go ahead and do it. These are your families you will be saving. Your parents. Your friends, Your relatives. You will never get a better chance to show your worth than now. In the process you find out how creative you are. How smart you are. Collectively build your own organizations, make your own plans, assign responsibilities among yourselves. In every home you already have your representatives, the youth and students of all ages, in the family, create a series of networks with them to fight this Tsunami. Make sure you keep your family inside home. Do not let them be exposed to outside contact. Find food for them. Share food with the neighbors who do not have access to food. Entertain them so that they are not bored sitting home day after day. Make them have fun too during these gloomy days. If you put your mind into it, you’ll be amazed how much you can do. You have so many volunteers in each home, from 5 year olds to 80 year olds. Your capacity is limitless.
If you live in the city, make a network in your street, in your block, in your neighborhood. Connect with each other.
Social Distancing With Strong Social Mobilization
Youth always came forward to save people in all disasters of Bangladesh. You know the history of youth in this country. You take this history to its peak, by defeating the world’s most dangerous and invisible enemy, Corona. This is your day. Grab it. You provide leadership to the youth of the whole world, who are also struggling with the same enemy. You will be a unique force in this fight. Do not pass it up.
This applies to all youth, whether at home or abroad. Everybody can join a local initiative at village level or street level. Those who are located in other countries can organize themselves to provide ideas, supplies, and support. Publicize who is engaged with whom. Involve your Bangladeshi and foreign friends, businesses, institutions to join the fight for your village. This will bring you close to the people you always wanted to be helpful to.
So far we have been talking non-stop about social distancing, and how important it is for fighting Corona virus. We are fully behind it. But we want to put equal emphasis on social mobilization. It is our fellow-feeling which will make us survive. There is no strategy for survival of an individual without survival of the all. The key is social distancing on strong foundation of social mobilization. We must make sure that daily-income-earners do not have to leave home to earn a living. Social mobilization must find ways how ‘surplus’ families can take care of ‘deficit’ families. If anybody has to go out for living, it would not be safe for people who live inside home.
The educational institutions have been closed. It was a decision well taken. Students will get the chance to mobilize their families, friends, and neighbourhoods. Junior students can join hands with senior students and other youth to carry out their surveillance and actions to save their own families first, then families next door, ultimately the whole neighborhood. The focus will be to ensure that the virus cannot sneak in. There must be special attention to the old, sick, pregnant mothers, physically and mentally disabled people and the poor.
Through social media, students may share all the information, problems they are facing, and their experiences. This is happening already. They will exchange advice and encouragement among themselves within the country and beyond.
For this purpose, the students with the youth, NGOs, social and business institutions may be able to come forward together or as individual entities. Already BUET students have been applauded by the nation for their contribution to make hand washing popular and easy.
Set Up Free Zones and Keep Them Free
From all considerations there is no doubt that we are about face a national calamity. It will be at the scale which will have the potential of destroying the basic fabric of most of our lives. Even if Coronavirus does not turn out to be the greatest of disasters, we still have to prepare for the worst. We cannot afford the luxury of remaining unprepared. We have to get prepared. While preparing, we must prepare for the worst.
During an invasion by a foreign power it is usual for the resistance forces to set up “liberated areas” or “Free Zones” which are not controlled by the invading army. This gives the population tremendous moral boost. During the invasion of Corona we can set up similar Free Zones, like corona free-villages, upojelas, or cities. We commit all our strength to keep them free. We apply the same technique that countries apply – not allow our enemy to enter our free zones. We strictly practice the formula — test, test, and test, and keep us safe, while continue to work on freeing the occupied territories. Local people have to do it. That is why the social mobilization becomes the most important strategy. The fighters who could keep an area free throughout the invasion period will be remembered in history.
Microcredit Borrowers Are a Disciplined Community
NGOs have microcredit programs in every village of the country.
The microcredit borrowers are a well-trained and disciplined community. They have rich experience of fighting disasters as a community. Without their disaster fighting skill microcredit programs could not have survived through major floods and other local disasters. They may be immediately mobilized to get ready to fight the biggest disaster ever. NGOs can come up with new disaster manuals and protocols for them to prepare them about the do’s and don’ts, how to withstand this disaster with discipline and courage. How they can act together even without weekly meetings. How to join forces with others to protect the families and the village. Luckily their financial and organizational strength will be tremendously helpful. They can be the examples in the village to encourage others to stay home continuously and be social leaders to take care of the old and the vulnerable of the entire village.
There are many government, private and social institutions in the country. They have many field staff in the villages and cities. All organizations can mobilize their employees to fight this disaster. Every organization, public or private, must quickly prepare their calamity fighting strategy and train their employees to take responsibility of the assigned villages, or own village, or city or neighborhood. They must know what is their responsibility, who do they report to. Who do they get the help from.
Unanswered Questions Must Have Answers Soon
Along the way we must find answers to many questions:
What will happen to those who live hand to mouth during the disaster?
How will the common people of the country survive?
After the disaster what kind of life will be waiting for the people after going through this experience. Where will they start?
Economic structure of the world may collapse. How does it start functioning again?
How long would it take to get the economy of the world and Bangladesh back in gear?
What would the post Corona world be like? Most likely that the world will have a new birth. The new-born world may not look like the world that we know now. It is strange to think that we will be facing an unfamiliar world within about a year — global framework will change, people will change, institutions will change, most importantly, the thinking of the world will be changed.
The demon of Corona is out of the bottle. Will this monster eat up the whole world? Can the world put the monster completely back in the bottle again? What kind of world will it leave for us?
What kind of Bangladesh will it leave behind for us?
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman showed us the path to the future through his seminal Six Point programme in 1966. He was only forty six.
His leadership led the people of Bangladesh to freedom five years later, in 1971. He was nearing fifty two.
At the age of fifty five, in 1975, his life was over, pushed to a brutal end by conspiracy at both the local and global levels.
It was a life lived in the fullness of political excitement. More importantly, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s politics was fundamentally a shaping of the Bengali ethos, all the way from the 1960s to the 1970s. He was a political being unlike any other, in a number of ways. For starters, it was courage he brought into his propagation of ideas. Never one to flinch in the face of danger, he stood his ground. Again, there was in him that spirit of defiance, of the uncompromising as it were. He knew what he needed to do for his people and would not stop or have second thoughts about it. He mapped his path to the future and would brook no opposition or admit any impediments to the achievement of his goals.
In Bangabandhu subsisted a thorough political being. His politics was, from a certain perspective, radical. And yet it was radicalism grounded in his belief in constitutionalism. He was a Bengali nationalist, persuading himself that if the state of Pakistan was to respond to the call of modernity, it would require a transformation of a sweeping kind. But, given the truths that came attached to Pakistan, he was prepared to take his fellow Bengalis out to better, greener pastures. That destination was Bangladesh. He it was who enlightened his people on a winter’s day in 1969 with the thought that East Pakistan would henceforth be Bangladesh.
It was a step forward in his politics. The Six Points, he told those close to him, were a path to the attainment of a single point --- that of national sovereignty. And yet, as his seminal oratory on 7 March 1971 so patently demonstrated, he was averse to secessionism. He was, in that season of intense drama, giving the generals and political classes of Pakistan enough rope to hang themselves. He knew the negotiations with Yahya Khan and Z.A. Bhutto were going nowhere, but he was prepared to go all the way till the end. Nearer the end, he proposed, through his negotiating team, a change in strategy. Pakistan, he said, could survive if it could graduate to a confederation.
When the soldiers struck, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman knew the course he would need to take. Informing the nation that it was a free entity, that Bangladesh was on the way, he courted arrest. He could have left the city; he could have escaped the clutches of the army; he could have gone underground. He did not do any of these things, for a couple of reasons. First, he had never run from the police or the military. Second, he was the elected leader of the majority party in the aborted national assembly and elected leaders did not make themselves physically scarce.
But his sufferings? The years, the thousands of days he spent in prison? For him, as he was wont to tell people, prison was his second home. It was an experience that took away his youth, left him hardly any chance of being with his family. It all began in 1948, within months of the creation of Pakistan, a state for whose establishment he had identified with the Muslim League in the mid-1940s and yet one that was fast turning into a geographical entity sliding from being a dream into a nightmare. Through the 1950s and 1960s, the state made sure that his liberties were curtailed if not proscribed. Every arrest was followed by a bail in court, which again was followed by a fresh new order of detention. Mujib did not expect anything different. His tormentors waited for him to capitulate. He refused to give them that macabre pleasure.
Bangabandhu’s life was always lived in danger. Twice the state of Pakistan went into the sordid business of trying to put him out of life or put him away. The Agartala Conspiracy Case caused fears to grow among his people that the gallows waited for him. But fear was never his, for he told foreign newsmen that he could not be kept a prisoner for more than six months. Agartala came apart, Ayub Khan fell. Mujib emerged free, the de facto spokesman of Pakistan’s Bengalis.
But a far bigger danger awaited him in 1971. Yahya Khan’s bluster of not ‘letting this crime go unpunished’ --- post-March negotiations --- had a single goal: Mujib’s life had to be brought to an end or he needed to be put away in prison for life. Even so, the Bengali leader remained unconcerned. In solitary confinement in distant Mianwali, deprived of access to newspapers, radio and television, he did not cave in. The military court was a contraption he did not recognize, the lawyer the state foisted on him was an arrangement he did not agree to. He would emerge, once again, a free man. Only this time, he was the father of his nation. His Bangladesh waited for him to come home.
As we observe the hundredth anniversary of his birth, it is the symbol of Bengali aspirations that we spot once again in Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman. It is the evolution in the man that we recall. For one who came into politics determined to uphold the communal policy propagated by the Muslim League and then move on into a more liberal world of secular politics, it was an act of unadulterated courage. And that precisely is what Mujib demonstrated. Where Mohammad Ali Jinnah went from secularism to communalism, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman went the other way --- from communalism to secularism. That was his greatness. It was courage. It was a politician rising to being a statesman.
Bangabandhu was our superman. And yet his greatness kept him fastened to our desires. He was one of us, never remote and never arrogant and not at all elitist. He remembered faces. He recalled names. He mingled with the masses as easily as he enjoyed the company of his peers around the globe. He was at home sharing food with a humble peasant and equally comfortable speaking to the world at the United Nations.
And, of course, there was a consistency of confidence in him. He asked Indira Gandhi when she would take her soldiers back home. He was blunt in his responses to global leaders critical of his nation’s struggle for freedom. For him, Bangladesh was the epic tale he narrated everywhere and at every opportunity. It was his poetry, lyrics he had imbibed from Tagore and Nazrul. It was a song that filled his soul with its richness of melody.
In this centenary of his birth, it is Bangabandhu’s ideals that matter. They matter because they speak of the primacy of constitutional governance; because they espouse rule of law; because they adhere to the sanctity that comes with free, fair and transparent elections; because they have at their centre the power of the people as it ought to be in a secular, liberal democracy.
Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman was our collective national presence on Mount Olympus. He showed us the Promised Land . . . and then took us there. His was leadership, moral and political, on the peaks of history. ***