The world has faced various pandemics in the past, but COVID-19 is distinct from the previous ones. Rapidly, it has become the major global concern, causing more than 290,000 deaths—a number that continues to rise. While the world was not ready to prevent or combat the disease, respective countries took some measures to face it as quickly as possible. The pandemic has connected countries across the globe, but the response to it is diverse—largely determined by state boundaries and cultural implications.
As the World Health Organization and other international organizations instructed everyone to follow certain restrictions, rules, and norms to contain the pandemic, terms such as “lockdown,” “quarantine,” “social distancing,” and “isolation” came into being. These were not familiar to the people of many non-Western countries like Bangladesh, and have been misunderstood or at least not understood accordingly. For example, social distancing does not effectively work in Bangladesh. Thus, lockdown became flawed.
After a delay in realizing the situation, the government of Bangladesh finally declared a general holiday in late March to prevent social contact in a bid to prevent the spread of the pandemic, but it largely misfired. Once it was announced, millions of people hurriedly left major cities for their village homes, crowding the railways, buses, and ships.
Many Bangladeshi’s do not realize what “quarantine” means. To them the word ghorbondi (home confinement) makes more sense. In March, a Bangladeshi returnee from abroad was directed to be quarantined at his home in the capital. On the second day, curious people were found gathering around the house just to see how a man quarantines himself in his home. For Bangladeshi people, it should be “safe distance” or “physical distance” rather than social distance.
Likewise, many people here have no concrete idea about hygiene or hand washing or the immune system in the ways discussed in global discourse about the pandemic, particularly those who live in the world’s most crowded slums and refugee camps. Workers in the informal economy face acute challenges to meet their daily basic needs, and have fewer options for maintaining proper hygiene to prevent the spread of the disease. Moreover, the government did not consider the impact of a lockdown on the non-salaried poor. Given that approximately 85 percent of people work in informal sectors (street vendors, rickshaw pullers, day laborers), the result of the lockdown caused most of them to lose their jobs and now many are facing starvation.
Political leaders are giving largely misleading statements, so the Bangladeshi people are not receiving accurate information. In addition to the initiatives of government and nongovernmental organizations, social institutions have also weighed in. Among them, religion is perhaps the most powerful influence. While minimizing physical contact can help prevent disease, some religious practices such as congregation for prayer, encourage behavior in conflict with that recommendation. Religious leaders (such as imam, mawlana) could guide their followers to maintain the required physical distance by suggesting that they avoid crowded religious prayers at mosques, for example.
World history will be shaped by our pre- and post-COVID-19 response. One thing is obvious; the ongoing coronavirus has revealed vulnerabilities in the global community’s response to outbreaks of viruses. We were not ready for this pandemic. However, COVID-19 offers us the opportunity to learn that in order to survive we need to maintain a coexistence with nature and animals, proper hygiene, and to improve our immune systems. It gives a clear message for an interconnected and interdependent world. With such grounded realities, I suggest that instead of relying on Western (exogenous) notions, we must take into account culturally appropriate local dynamics and understandings if we are to collectively face and respond to pandemics on a global scale.
Muhammad Ala Uddin is a professor of anthropology at the University of Chittagong in Bangladesh.
Cite as: Uddin, Muhammad Ala. 2020. “The Meaning of Lockdown in Bangladesh.” Anthropology News website, May 20, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1403