The horrors of 2020 will continue into the year ahead. The devastation wrought by the pandemic will be lasting and painful. Bangladesh, just like the rest of the world, will be reeling with new surges of COVID patients dying or surviving with long-haul symptoms. The nation will remember 2020 as a year of grief and trauma.
The virus has so much momentum that more infection and death are almost inevitable as the second pandemic year begins. Pain will probably ease, but never completely go away. Bangladesh showed clear signs of resilience in the relentless battle against the virus. The next few months will be dark, but every passing day brings a little more light with the news of the vaccine’s arrival.
President Md Abdul Hamid and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in their New Year messages, vowed to lead them through the challenges posed by the pandemic. Hasina called for mutual cooperation of all, saying that it is the only way to deal with any global crisis.
With more than 1.7 million people dead and 82 million infected around the globe since last New Year’s Eve - yet hope that new vaccines can help tame the pandemic - the year ended unlike any other in memory. Angela Merkel, in her 16th New Year’s Eve address as German chancellor, said as much.
“I think I am not exaggerating when I say: never in the last 15 years have we found the old year so heavy. And never have we, despite all the worries and some scepticism, looked forward to the new one with so much hope.”
With the COVID-19 morphing into the biggest issue the world over, Bangladesh reported its first cases on Mar 8 after the virus was first detected in China by the end of 2019. After nearly 10 more months, Bangladesh has more than half a million confirmed coronavirus infections with over 7,500 deaths from the respiratory illness caused by the virus.
It has been a year of loss and sorrow. At the same time, it has been a period for the world of coming together as one. Professor Serajul Islam Choudhury thinks 2020 was a “very bad” year, while Prof Muhammed Zafar Iqbal says the world would “toss it away much earlier if they could!". Now the year is gone with the clock ticking past midnight to the New Year’s Day.
Coupled with the fears of the virus transmission, a police ban on almost all sorts of New Year’s Eve revelry and gatherings dampened the celebrations largely, but many residents of Dhaka have ringed in the new year with firecrackers.
The year, however, began with hope for huge celebrations on Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth centenary. But the emergence of the coronavirus in China cast a shadow on the plans, making people more acquainted with words like “isolation”, “quarantine”, “social distancing” and “lockdown”.
And finally, Bangladesh reported the first cases in March amid an exodus of returnees who lost jobs or wanted to be with their families at home during the pandemic.
The migrant workers’ path for a return to their countries of work was closed shortly afterwards. But only around 8,000 workers could travel abroad between July and November after flights resumed following months of halt on operations.
“I’m in extreme financial hardship with no income at the moment. I can neither bear the agonising hunger, nor can I share the pain with someone else. Our future is now uncertain,” said Anwar Hossain, one of the Bangladeshi migrant workers stranded at home.
The 66-day lockdown in Bangladesh from late March upended livelihoods of the working-class people while the virus continued to ravage the nation claiming scores of lives daily. Many had to leave the cities and go back to their village homes after failing to pay rents for months.
Appalling stories of the people’s struggle to cope with the situation emerged from across the country. Families rushed from one hospital to another to get their loved ones admitted, but the doors were closed as the health care facilities demanded a coronavirus test result first amid a shortage of tests.
Relatives refused to bury the coronavirus dead, while thousands gathered for the funeral of a religious leader, an incident that made headlines in the international media and shocked the nation.
"If it wasn’t for the pandemic, we wouldn’t have realised that a person’s brother, wife and children can abandon them in such a short period of time, out of fear of a virus,” said Maksudul Alam Khandaker Khorshed, a Narayanganj City Corporation councillor and one of the volunteers who braved the fears of infection to ensure a proper burial for the coronavirus dead.
Meanwhile, many saw the pandemic as an opportunity to get richer. The COVID testing scam brought dubious businessman Mohammad Shahed, and JKG Health Care’s Ariful Chaudhury and his wife Dr Sabrina Sharmeen Husain aka Sabrina A Chaudhury under the spotlight, leading the government to bring wholesale changes to the sector.
Irregularities in distribution of relief materials have never let up in Bangladesh, but it came to a shock when public representatives were caught embezzling rice earmarked for the poor during the lockdown.
“We were caught off guard. There has been no coordination with the experts to tackle the pandemic. Especially the corruption we saw in the health sector was terrifying. It is now clear that we lack preparations and allocations in the health sector. And the allocation for the sector is gobbled up by corruption,” said Prof Serajul.
The year also shed light on the infinite possibilities in humanity with many of the health workers working without proper protection and the police, often criticised for their indifference, helped the people hunker down with supports for quarantine or hospital visit. Many of the frontline workers in the fight against the coronavirus died from COVID-19.
The pandemic also promoted a renewed sense of hygiene and increased awareness about health. People, though not all, are wearing masks when outdoors, keeping physical distance and washing hands with soap and water or sanitiser.
“The COVID-19 pandemic has been a challenge to the entire world. We must move forward by tackling this challenge,” said Prof Serajul, advising the government to give more importance to the health and education sectors besides economy and agriculture.
Mushtuq Husain, a public health expert advising the government’s disease control agency on tackling COVID-19, also said health should be put prominently on the nation’s development agenda.
“Health doesn’t only mean treatment in the hospital. We must build a format to prevent health issues,” he said.
Mushtuq, who is also active in politics, sees the things experienced by Bangladesh in 2020 as a tool to tackle what lies in 2021. “The strength and courage we’ve gathered will come in handy in future.”
To fight off the pandemic, Bangladesh is initially bringing the vaccine developed by Britain’s University of Oxford and drugmaker AstraZeneca. The first doses are expected to arrive in January, Health Minister Zahid Maleque has said.
With the massive vaccination campaigns kicked off in the US and Europe, major markets of Bangladesh’s products who also host a vast number of Bangladeshis, the economy of the country appears to have a strong outlook.
Then again, the days of mourning will not change anytime soon. “We will be wrong if we think that the COVID-19 infections will end forever,” warned Mushtuq.