This scourge of the coronavirus is sure to stay for quite a while, causing ravages of an unforeseen magnitude. How long we have to suffer the unthinkable is anybody's guess, some experts saying until a shot is invented, may be in September with a lot of optimistic thinking. But until then Bangladesh, and the world as well, are sure to go through a lot of debates on tradeoffs between costs to human life and cost to economy.
But more than that, even when the virus will eventually be over one day, Bangladesh will have to think of a new beginning to its development paradigm, its growth model and its purpose of life. And it may have to rewrite its five-year plans though they never are materialised.
The first area the country will have to focus hard is its health care. The pandemic has revealed how fragile a health system the country's 165 million people are precariously hanging from.
Bangladesh spends among the lowest in terms of GDP on health care. A mere 0.9 percent of the GDP according to the current WB data. The 2020 data says the per capita expenditure on healthcare is a mere Tk1,537 placing Bangladesh among the countries that least spends on health in the South-East Asia Region. Compare it with other countries, even in South Asia, and you feel the despair of the people who seek even the minimum healthcare.
So this fragile health system cannot face a pandemic of this proportion - the recurrence of such things are now predicted to be regular phenomenon because of climate change, melting of permafrost that exposes millions of years old bacteria and viruses unknown to the New World.
And moreover, as we find now with the raging pandemic, common health services are all hamstrung, seized up. A cancer patient cannot get his PET isotope testing done, a critical health patient cannot get his operation done as reagents are exhausted and there is no telling when it might get imported again.
So in addition to the coronavirus casualties, more people will now die out of their various other comorbidities. Even for a simple injury infection, one may not find any treatment and die.
And the number of doctors and nurses in this country are still much lower in proportion to the entire population if compared with other countries. There are an estimated 0.527 doctors per 1 thousand people and 0.307 nurses per 1 thousand people in Bangladesh. India has one doctor for every 1,457 people which is still lower than the WHO norm of 1:1,000 and Sri Lanka has .958 doctors per 1,000 people.
This virus pandemic has shown how the health care professionals are becoming infected at an alarming rate and then hospitals are closing or even refusing services. That is a really scary situation now.
So the first task is to set aside more money for health care. More ventilators have to be handy, more ICUs need to be in place (their number is a real shame for a populous country like ours). And more quality doctors and nurses have to be churned out every year with employment guarantee.
If we have to survive in the future, they would play the vital role.
The next on the wish list should be bolstering our social safety net system. The government was quick to respond to the hungry mouths on the street crying for food. It has started relief operation and cash transfer.
But is that adequate? Certainly not as many reports in the media showed how a large chunk of people have gone without food or cash.
But more than that, the bureaucracy has to be attuned to the quick response situation. This newspaper has run more than one story to show how red tape has hindered reaching food to the people who have lost jobs, people who live in the slums. In one instance, it took 22 days to reach food to the hungry, that too not for everybody.
There is a ministry of Disaster Management and Relief. They have earned praise for their past performance in mobilising during floods and cyclones but what about this completely new threat? Did they have an adequate plan in place or could they develop one as soon as the pandemic threat was making headlines?
A quick response bureaucracy is in order now.
Our pandemic response has exposed the holes in the planning and quick implementation. From the beginning, a top physician who happens to hold a top post of a doctors' association of some sorts had claimed that coronavirus will never come to Bangladesh just as H1N1 or swine flu did not. He claimed that he had given a specific preparation plan to the government.
We don't know what his plan was, but the latter events can testify that it must have been leaky and inadequate. Otherwise, why had we ignored calls to stop foreign flights, why had we let the people returning from Italy enter the country to have a holiday of sorts, and why did we fail to send them to forced quarantine although everybody knew the self-quarantine idea would not work in Bangladesh because of the social behaviour of the population.
We still do not know why we did not take proactive initiative to immediately procure emergency testing kits and personal protection gears and ventilators. The time we lost was enough for the rich countries to snap up those vital gears in lots causing a global crisis of protection gears.
These all reflect a lack of prompt thinking by the people who were supposed to do it.
The hungry multitudes that are now haunting the Dhaka streets were mostly employed. Some of them house helps, some rickshaw-wallahs, some tea vendors. And now, their livelihood is gone.
So this brings the future wish list Number 5 – Bangladesh needs its own unemployment and health insurance system. In the last few budgets, there have been talks of starting insurance for the poor. But that has not progressed much. And so a system should be instituted to roll out insurances for the poor. They have little savings and a sudden gush of crosswind just leaves them without the most basic protection.
And the Number 6 on the list is to provide the infrastructure to our educational institutes for online education.
In the last one month, the students have suffered immensely. Sitting at home, they have become listless, melancholic, and rebellious. Their daily behavioural pattern has changed alarmingly and their academic life has suffered beyond calculation.
We need a robust internet system to connect our educational institutions with homes all over the country to reach seamless educational materials.
Let's take care of our present and let's take care of our future generation in an enlightened way.