Year 2020 - Agree to Disagree? -The Asian Age

The Year 2020. A year that many were looking forward to. A year that many thought would be all that they hoped for. A year that many believed would be their year. A year of progress. A year of accomplishments. A year of happiness. But sadly, it has been far from it. Further than our wildest imaginations. It started just like any other year. People celebrating a new beginning. Promising themselves to new resolutions, and humanly erring to falter from them slowly but surely. Still, seemingly, we all walked right into the eye of a silent storm. One that crept in unnoticed at first, but dramatically altered life as we know it.

Like most international news, we all saw the alarming footages of the coronavirus, as it was called then, on TV and Facebook, and shook our heads at the unbelievable predicament that looked like a hoax at first, as though it was some plot of a 'zombie apocalypse ' movie (which later, turned out, seemed incredibly plausible, given the freaky coincidences with Contagion)!But the irony of it all, looking back at it now, was that none of us took it seriously. And not just Bangladesh, everywhere else in the world, it was the same notion - it's not going to happen here! Such blind faith! I doubt we even have so much on religion or relationships, sometimes.

Despite the month'sforewarning, we fumbled. Elusive, indiscriminatory, and disintegrative, this pandemic stripped leaders across borders of their guise and exposed the gaping flaws, glaring the limelight on their colossal blunders, even before the crisis reared its ugly head and became a pandemic. And every mistake has a price. One that was paid with the loss of lives and livelihoods. From financial setbacks to economic recessions, from shortages in basic supplies to ridiculous (not to mention unethical) price hikes, from increasing household burdens to deteriorating lifestyles, countries that were built like a majestic castle, came crashing down like a house of cards. It was a mess of epic proportions. Wehad dropped the "pandemic's box" right on the fine line between audacity and idiocy.And now, the worst was yet to come.

Where some countries like Thailand and New Zealand, which made headlines, and even those that didn't really create quite the buzz like Fiji and Vietnam (I wonder why, go figure), were winning the battle, the great powers of the West were losing the war. It was like a live documentary on how effective denial is as a coping mechanism. It reminded me of a simple dialogue from Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix - "He's going to get us all killed because he can't face the truth." There is some resounding reality in the idea that movies are indeed made from life. It's sad, really. We watch movies to escape from our lives into theirs, but right now, it feels like the tables have turned, and the horror has somehow spilled out of the screen into our lives instead.

Today, the world of Covid-19 has been split in two - those who are living in fear and those who remain ignorant. Of course, the world isn't all black and white, there are those in the greyscale who are simply being cautious without panicked trepidation. But here, I think those numbers pale in comparison to the other two. Both are acting out, albeit in different ways, but both causing dire consequences. These are difficult times we are living in, and that strangely brings out the best in some and worst in others. While there are numerous who have been fighting in the frontlines, volunteering to bring in relief materials and aid those in need, there are those who have been less than righteous.

Hoarding basic supplies forcing stores to limit purchases per person, snowballing product and service prices to profit from the pandemic, lashing out at home leading to a rise in domestic violence across the board, crumbling psychological well-being regressing into depression that triggers suicidal tendencies as a result.We've seen, heard, felt all of that within our own circles and beyond. Companies downsized or deducted salaries. Some did not pay out their dues to suppliers. Some still had to pay rent and staff without having any sales or alternate source of income.

All with the escalating demand and price warfare, making ends meet an uphill battle with each passing day. And that is the diluted scenario in developing countries such as ourselves. Some have it worse than others. Some fared better. But it gets dark and dreary once you get down to the nitty-gritty of the underbelly of the socio-economic monstrosity that we dwell in.

We are a self-combustible breed of people. We thrive on the likes of hypocrisy, discrimination, and immorality. We have, by far, some of the worst possible hygiene habits, probably besides the use of the hand-shower in the loo! We hardly used to do half the sanitizing or washing we are conscientiously doing now. We board public transport like herded cattle, leaving little to no space for even a gasp of air. We barely gave any thought to food or exercise in our terribly unhealthy lifestyles. There may be exceptions, in any case, for sure, but they are hardly ever examples.

The filth you see discarded by the wayside throughout the streets of Dhaka alone, are enough to make you wonder, hadn't we set ourselves up for this to a certain extent? According to Unicef, "Bangladesh has progressed in spreading the awareness on basic hygiene, but even then, the essential practice of just hand washing is relatively low. Merely 59.1% of its people practice handwashing with water and soap at critical times as of a 2013 survey, but even then, it was not a regular practice." World Bank stated, "Bangladesh's economic cost of poor sanitation and hygiene is $4.2 billion a year, while the returns on investment in sanitation conservatively estimate to about 2.3 times the investment costs."

Yet, the equation remains unresolved. I know there are certain people higher up in the food chain, whose failures are to blame for some of the issues we face in our daily lives. Whether that be the 'Uncle Sam' of the East or the corporate mongers whose greed remain unsatiated, you can't deny, we don't exactly hold up our end of the bargain either, do we?

Take up any other country for instance. Those that recovered was primarily because as a community they already had strong hygiene habits (like wearing masks outside, using sanitizers, washing hands, etc.),with significant credit to their governing bodies who enforced strict measures in locking down and preventing the spread of the virus, and of course, the people who actually understood the magnitude of the situation and abided by the set regulations. And those who are still seem to befighting a lost cause, either their government fumbled dreadfully in taking the necessary action (where some are still grasping for a miracle in the dark, whose indecisiveness will be the death of me), while their people flouted the means of basic civic sense of wearing masks/gloves and maintaining social distancing (even if not for yourself, but for others at the very least) over some idiotic irrational ideology of their own.

Good hygiene practices like handwashing with soap reduced Acute Respiratory Infections by 25%, based on data from Unicef's Safe Sanitation and Hygiene Program.It may seems like a far-fetched notion from two ends of a spectrum, but bear with me here. Just stop and think for a second. How are we any different from the suicide bombers? How is our stubborn superiority complex any different from the violent extremism? How are we any different from those criminals, abusers, and murderers? Are we really that busy in our own bubbles or have we become so thick-skinned now that we refuse to realize that we are spreading the virus ourselves? And not just the microorganism that claims lives and livelihoods even today, but in the form of fear, hatred, oppression, and all the risks that they entail. They all come with the territory, don't they?

Somewhere down the line, these skeletons we are burying in our closets now will see the light of another day, when they will be dissected and analyzed beyond post-mortem to pave the way for remarkable and revolutionary research theories. Where we went wrong, how we went wrong, what we could've done, what we should've done, and what we can do right in the future - but no one really digs deep into the why. Why did this happen? Why did it get out of hand? Why couldn't we prevent it? Why did we lose sight of the bigger picture for our own personal, professional, or political gains? Why, indeed? We all love a good blame-game, passing the bucket along to the next one. Conjuring up conspiracy theories, deducing ulterior motives, and passing an opinion on who is the antagonist of the play. But we easily forget that even we have a role to play here. Perhaps, if our characters did their part, we could have been well on our way to become the protagonists. Even if we don't necessarily save the day. In this case, I'm sure, we could've saved lives. But it's never too late to try. One can hope, right?

I came across 'the 5 stages of grief', funnily enough, a couple of years ago, and it comes to my mind often when I look around right now. It's not often when something like a theoretical framework lends itself so subtly onto another scenario, but when it does, it just leaves you in a bit of an awe, I think. The Kübler-Ross Model has long been expanded to include a broad spectrum of personal loss besides coping with illness and death. And the model, not as a roadmap but as a guideline, sheds light on the way we have been dealing with the current pandemic.

Our response to the virus early on was the onset of denial, "It won't affect us.", followed gradually by anger, "It's making us stay locked up!" Then there is bargaining, "Okay, so if I social distance for 2 weeks, everything will be fine, right?". And when that doesn't work, comes the sadness, "I don't know when this is going to be over!" Once we pass through the phases, we finally manage to make it to acceptance, "This is actually happening, and I have to figure out how to go about it now." Strangely, that is where and when we regain power and control of our lives - I can wash my hands. I can keep a safe distance. I can learn to work/study from home. I can overcome. I can do this. Of course, it hasn't and doesn't work the same way for everyone, obviously. Some accept early on; some don't budge from denial.

Some let the sadness take over. But for the most part, if we can actually come to terms with the reality and gravity of the situation we are all in, the better our chances of managing it, because honestly, there is no point in fighting it unless you can fight it off.

Studies from the World Health Organization determined that in case of physical distancing, the chance of transmission fell to 2.6% from 12.8% when social distancing is maintained, while the use of face masks lowered the risk from 17.4% to 3.1%. Now, while social distancing may not be a realistically viable choice for the majority of the population who live, work, and travel in alarmingly close proximity, it makes it all the more a necessity in light of the pandemic. Like most countries around the globe, despite having access to the prior information and awareness about Covid-19, Bangladesh too, is now suffering from its delayed response.

Inadequate health care facilities that have already been overburden before the curve reached its peak, insufficient tests run that are still at a few thousands per million with about 23% (as of the 134th day since the first reported cases in the country)detection rate to deduce the accurate scenario of the virus in the country according to health experts, masses flocking for religious gatherings ranging from funerals of noted local priests to prayers during Ramadan  and Eid-ul-Fitr - we have become our own catalysts in escalating the spread of the virus. And our few futile attempts at reverse the impact and flattening the curve will probably be rendered ineffective yet again, with Eid-ul-Azha right around the corner. As though the situation had been anything but improving since the lax 'general holiday' announcement followed by the withdrawal of the countrywide lockdown.

Just keeping educational institutions closed, while all public-private offices, shops, malls, restaurants, public transport, etc. remain open like an abyss, expecting people to use their 'good judgment' to differentiate right from wrong in the moment of a crisis, is like a Band-Aid for a bullet wound with the machine gun still shooting. Just stitching one gaping hole won't do us much good when the rest is still being riddled with rounds. It is possible to fight, overcome, and survive. We have exceptions that we can use as examples. Just wash your hands! Wear masks! Use gloves and sanitizers! Disinfect your groceries!

Limit going outside or having people over! If you absolutely must, then maintain social distance! Practice good hygiene and cleanliness around the house! It may be difficult. It may be exhausting! It may even be frustrating at one point! But it is doable!Maybe not 100%, but even just a bit of caution is better than being reckless! And it just might save your life, or another's. But if we don't buck up now, as a government, as communities, as people, I'm afraid our beloved Bangladesh may soon bleed to death by its 50th Year of Independence. Physically. Psychologically. Socially. Economically. Nationally. Agree to disagree.

- Ms. Shama Islam, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Business Administration,
Special Assistant, Office of the Vice Chancellor & Student Affairs,
American International University - Bangladesh (AIUB)