Neoliberal Vogue and the Pandemic in Bangladesh

When I first read that the coronavirus was gaining ground in Washington, DC, I immediately thought of the situation of my American colleague. He replied that the whole world seemed to be at an elevated alert level and that he was counting his blessings with good health and family. He added that many offices there were still functioning, although everyone was working from home. The capital city had become a ghost town with everything closed, and the following night the national emergency was extended indefinitely. I also observed that politicians finally appeared to be listening to the advice of scientists rather than the “royal family” in the White House.

What I was seeing in daily headlines in the United States was a reflection of where things were several weeks ago in Bangladesh. I read the incubation period was roughly two weeks, and so I believed that after following two weeks of grim news from places like New York (and Spain and Italy), the effects of physical separation would finally begin to be noticed. However, this hope did not last as the situation in New York became devastating.

Bangladesh was at first deemed free from the coronavirus. In mid-March, however, there were 142 Bangladeshis who returned from Italy. Panic sparked when they were allowed to go back to their village homes. In Dhaka, the capital of Bangladesh, the stationary traffic stretched into the fume-blurred horizon. People lurched forward inch by inch, bumper to bumper. After the government declared a “vacation” in early April (unofficial lockdown), everything abruptly stopped. Dhaka is now empty.  People went to their homes to celebrate this “vacation” and the ritual of “social distancing” became rhetoric.

We need to acknowledge that the Bangladeshi economy, and policymaking overall, operates under the neoliberal economic ethos.

The Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control, and Research (IEDCR), the national institute for conducting disease surveillance and outbreak investigation, counted 1,838 people infected and 75 deaths. The government then declared all of Bangladesh at risk of the coronavirus pandemic as the infection spread to various parts of the country. Schools, offices, garment factories, and public events are closed. Some places are in quarantine and lockdown and social panic is disseminating.

Four points are helping me think through what is going on. First, Bangladesh will have more potentially infected people and the lack of preparation by the government in facing the public health crisis may be the cause. Another cultural reason may be that social distancing and strict lockdowns are hard to maintain. Bangladeshis are prone to hangout in bazaars and gossip. Whenever possible they love to visit their village home to spend time with their nearest and dearest.  Second, by not identifying all of the people infected with COVID-19 we are threatening our ability to control its spread. We know the virus travels fast and probably arrived from abroad in early March. Few tests were conducted and enabled those carrying the virus to move freely. Third, fear among doctors and other caregivers has spiked because government hospitals have a very limited supply of safety apparel, and these are being used on a priority basis. As of this writing, 100 doctors and 300 health caregivers are already infected. Recently six doctors were fired for being reluctant to work in a hospital treating COVID-19 patients. Finally, viruses are not only strands of DNA or RNA, but also intersect with local socio-political and material conditions, such as health facilities and infrastructures, job security, and cultural habits.

The Bangladesh government has announced economic stimulus packages worth Tk 67,750 crore to enhance its effort to overcome the nationwide crisis. Garment factory owners recently asked employees to get back to work, which was a blatant violation of health security. The factory owners were given the condition that if they can ensure the medical safety of the workers, the factories can resume production. In reality, however, under the neoliberal economic paradigm, investment seeks the certainty of profit, and the medical safety of workers comes as a secondary priority.

While Bangladesh is scrambling to limit the coronavirus infection, major private hospitals are reluctant to provide much-needed services. The main reason behind their reluctance is that treating COVID-19 patients is not profitable enough, and the risk of getting infected is substantially high. That said, we do have to recognize many doctors and health professionals are working on the frontline despite the danger and having little to no monetary rewards. We do salute them!

We need to recognize, in a neoliberal economic paradigm, that the dollar dictates, decides, and defines right and wrong. We need to acknowledge that the Bangladeshi economy, and policymaking overall, operates under the neoliberal economic ethos. COVID-19 is the symptom, but late-stage extractive capitalism is the actual virus wreaking havoc in ecological and spiritual realms of civilization.

Zahir Ahmed is a professor of anthropology at Jahangirnagar University in Dhaka, Bangladesh, and a member of the American Anthropological Association’s Border and Security Walls Task Force.

Cite as: Ahmed, Zahir. 2020. “Neoliberal Vogue and the Pandemic in Bangladesh.” Anthropology News website, May 15, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1402

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