POST TIME: 2 July, 2020 10:01:36 AM
Covid-19 pandemic and Political Order in Bangladesh
Professor Arun Kumar Goswami

Covid-19 pandemic and Political Order in Bangladesh

How Bangladesh has been managing the transmission of covid-19 and the challenges caused by the pandemic? The approaches of different governments to face the challenges of covid-19 pandemic are based on scientific findings, but the decisions are not ‘science’ rather than political.  The whole world including Bangladesh has fallen into a precarious state due to sudden and strong push of coronavirus. The push was so sudden that, no country of the world has got sufficient time to face it. Nevertheless, before assessing the nature and possible wear and tear in economy, politics, and society, the demons of covid-19 have messed up the economy of every country of the world.  However, the successful management of any crisis by a society depends on the effectiveness of its political order. Similarly, successful management of Covid-19 also relies on the line of effective actions covered by political order of a country. Present write-up attempts to assess the effectiveness of Bangladesh political order in tackling the challenges posed by the covid-19 pandemic.
In his article titled The Pandemic and Political Order: It Takes a State published in July/August 2020 issue of Foreign Affairs, American Political Scientist Francis Fukuyama has identified the factors for successful management of covid-19 pandemic. He says, ‘the factors responsible for successful pandemic responses have been state capacity, social trust, and leadership. Countries with all three—a competent state apparatus, a government that citizens trust and listen to, and effective leaders—have performed impressively, limiting the damage they have suffered. Countries with dysfunctional states, polarized societies, or poor leadership have done badly, leaving their citizens and economies exposed and vulnerable.’  The three elements ‘stable state’, ‘social trust’, and ‘citizens’ response to decision of the leadership’ that have been mentioned by Fukuyama are the main elements of political order. Inability of the political order can lead to ‘disorder and instability’ in the society.  However, the concept of ‘political order’ has been introduced in the domain of Political Science by American Political Scientist Samuel P. Huntington in his 1968 classical work Political Order in Changing Societies.  The analytical insight of this book ‘is astonishing, and cemented Samuel Huntington’s reputation as one of the foremost political scientists of his generation.’ Before his death in 2008, and for its relevance even in the age of ‘third wave democratization’, Huntington’s Political Order… was published again in 2006 with a foreword by Francis Fukuyama. Later on, following Huntington’s idea,  Francis Fukuyama (2011) has identified the main elements of political order in his The Origins of Political Order: From prehuman times to the French Revolution.

 Now, in addressing the initial question we find that different countries have responded on covid-19 management in different ways. These approaches were informed by scientific findings, but they resulted from political decisions, not science. Nevertheless, the countries of the world were wrongly prepared or not prepared at all for the sudden appearance of the covid-19 pandemic.  For example, even after the first covid-19 detection in Wuhan of China in December 2019, and covid-19 affected Chinese came to Italy from China, the Mayor of Florence, Italy in February 2020 launched "hug a Chinese" campaign. As a result of wrong handling by the government, in March, 2020 Italy has become the worse-affected country outside China, where the COVID-19 outbreak started. At one point of time, the severity of the covid-19 pandemic in Italy was so profound that Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte reported to have said, ‘We have lost control, we have killed the epidemic physically and mentally. Can’t understand what more we can do, all solutions are exhausted on ground. Our only hope remains up in the Sky, God rescue your people.’ After four and half months of first covid-19 detection and since June 2020, the transmission of corona-virus has started decreasing in Italy, though the country is still on the 9th position in the list of top ten covid-19 affected countries of the world in June 26, 2020, and the USA is number one.

However, for both developed and developing countries, the pandemic not only reveals structural weaknesses in the health care sector, but it also highlights problems of ineffective governance, low levels of human security, and precarious economic models. It also raises the demand for significant state capacity when there is to mobilize the resources for such a pandemic. The ripple effects of COVID-19 look set to change the trade, politics and economics. 

The government of Bangladesh has imposed general holiday for containing the coronavirus pandemic since March 26, 2020. It was extended in phases and  ended on May 30. During the holidays hospitals, kitchen markets, drug stores and other essential services were open. The government has repeatedly been asking people to stay home in efforts to contain the spread of the virus. But soon after the 24 March announcement, people started leaving the capital for their village homes in droves. Several local media outlets reported that hundreds of city dwellers boarded buses and trains to head back home, fuelling fears of further spread of the virus throughout the country.

After the first case was diagnosed in early March, the government of Bangladesh has closed educational institutions and nudged all non-essential businesses to go online. The government had scaled down and postponed several events related to the celebration of the birth centenary of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman from March 17.  On 1 April, the government cancelled all public programmes marking Pahela Baishakh, the Bengali New Year, to avoid mass gatherings as part of its efforts to contain the spread of the novel coronavirus. The Bengali New Year 1427 begun on April 14, 2020. On the other hand, to prevent the transmission of coronavirus,  Muslims in Bangladesh have celebrated their biggest religious festival, Eid-ul-Fitr, without any outdoor activities in this year 2020. The government urged people to avoid Eidgah or other open places for congregations and offer prayers at mosques following recommended health advice. In an emergency notification on 14 May,2020 the religious affairs ministry urged devotees to bring prayer mats and scalp caps from home and wear masks.

On March 25, 2020, following the instruction of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, former prime minister and jailed opposition leader Khaleda Zia was released for six months amid the coronavirus outbreak. The 74-year-old opposition Bangladesh Nationalist Party(BNP) chief is serving a 17-year prison term in two graft cases since February 8, 2018. Begum Zia served thrice as the premier since 1991. Her party suffered a miserable defeat in the 2018 elections bagging only six seats in 300-seat Jatiya Sangsad (parliament).  She was sent to jail in February 2018 by the court on charges of embezzling foreign donations during her premiership between 2001 and 2006. The donations were meant for an orphanage, named after her slain husband, former Bangladesh president and founder of BNP General Ziaur Rahman,

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has urged the people to visit physicians if they experience any symptom of coronavirus and not to pay heed to any rumour about the virus. She issued a 31-point directive on April 02, 2020 in view of the Covid-19 outbreak. The Prime Minister also warned that no corruption will be tolerated in the relief distribution and advised not to use personal protective equipment (PPE) wholesale by all the people.  Following Prime Minister’s warning, a total of 100 public representatives have so far been suspended for alleged irregularities in cash aid and relief distribution among the destitute since the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak. According to a notification of Local Government Division (LGD), among the suspended representatives 30 UP are chairmen, 64 UP members, a zila parishad member, four municipality councillors and one upazila vice-chairman.  However, reports of such corruption and relief embezzlement have been published in various media outlets.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is also looking after the opposition leaders, Mujahidul Islam Selim and Dr. Zafarullah who have been affected by coronavirus.  The result of a sample survey conducted by Germany’s international broadcaster Deutsche Welle (DW) on May 29, 2020 indicated that most people do not have trust on BNP. The respondents were asked, ‘Do you think that the United Front led by BNP could play any effective role in Bangladesh politics ?’ Out of four thousand, most of the respondents i.e.81% said ‘no’ and only 19% said ‘yes’.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina used to review the latest Covid-19 updates on regular basis and provide necessary guidance to bolster the country's fight against the coronavirus pandemic. In such review meetings the topics - such as  the measures taken so far to contain coronavirus infection, plans on the collection of medical and safety equipment and the future initiatives to inhibit Covid-19 – are discussed. On April 19, 2020 the government formed a 17-member National Technical Advisory Committee with a view to containing the spread of Covid-19 in the country. On May 30, 2020 the Prime Minister, while holding a meeting with the National Technical Advisory Committee -- formed to fight Covid-19 in the country -- directed the authorities concerned to engage local public representatives in a greater way in containing the novel coronavirus in the country.

All offices and public transports reopen on May 30, 2020 on a limited scale after over two months of nationwide shutdown amid fears of further increase in the number of COVID-19 infections and deaths.

The leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been hailed by different national and international entities in managing the crisis, taking decisions, communicating with the field level administration regularly through video conferencing. The prestigious US magazine Forbes has highly praised Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and placed her in the list of successful women leadership for her sincere efforts to contain the coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh. The magazine said Sheikh Hasina, the country's longest serving Prime Minister, started evacuating Bangladeshi citizens from China in early February. The article said Sheikh Hasina harnessed tech, installing screening devices across international airports which screened some 650,000 people (of which 37,000 were immediately quarantined), something the UK still isn't doing.

However, the picture that emerges from the situation of pandemic in different countries has raised many questions about the political order of the respective country.  However, ultimate answer to the questions regarding success and failure in tackling the crisis of covid-19 pandemic by a given country is yet to be understandable.

*Professor Dr. Arun Kumar Goswami, author of the book titled Institutionalization of Democracy in Bangladesh and Director, South Asian Study Circle, Jagannath University, Dhaka.