Mushtaque Chowdhury (LSHTM PhD, 1986) is the founding Dean James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University and Professor of Population & Family Health, Columbia University. He currently lives in Dhaka, Bangladesh and has been writing articles on how Bangladesh is dealing with COVID-19. Within this blog piece he discusses the first eight days of lockdown and the impact it has had on his country.
“COVID-19 has affected my work immensely. I live in Dhaka and the virus is here, afflicting more and more people. The preparation is minimum and the effect on the poor is catastrophic due to lockdown. I have been responding to the outbreak by initiating research projects on the spread of the virus and how it is impacting on the different segments of the population. Positively, coronavirus has led to undertaking important research studies on its impact. LSHTM’s training has given me the confidence and tools to undertake this relevant research, I am very proud to be an LSHTM alumnus.”
Homebound: The first eight days
“The country, and the world at large, has changed at an unprecedented pace. All 193 of the UN member countries have reported the existence of COVID-19 within their borders. We remain homebound, along with a third of humanity. No other global crisis has reached so many countries and people in the past. It is levelling socioeconomic gaps. Rich, poor, the powerful and the disenfranchised – all are susceptible.
“My wife and I decided to give in to the mounting pressure from our children and finally stay home from March 18, 2020—incidentally the day the first COVID-19 related death was announced in Bangladesh. At the risk of sounding insensitive, the first hit for us was in our apartment building. The caretaker left his job without notice. The cleaner became irregular. I decided to take over some of their jobs, including distributing newspapers to different apartments. As a precaution for all involved, we gave paid leave to our help.
“Now that we are on our own, I’m letting the inner optimist out and approaching this from a glass half-full perspective. I finally have time to do things that I don’t normally do or am not allowed to do. Yesterday, I decided to cook bhaji with shalgom. This particular winter vegetable is normally used as an ingredient with fish or meat, not as a bhaji. My wife appreciated my cooking with a grain of salt— “delicious but it has too much oil.” I have re-taken charge of cleaning, which I used to do while abroad. Watching movies is another popular pastime. Like many others, we re-watched the 2011 hit Contagion, which is very similar to what is happening in the world today.
“Staying at home and the additional cleaning and apartment duties has not prevented me from my ‘other work’. Many academics and researchers are taking the crisis as an opportunity to engage in research on the pandemic. As part of several virtual working groups, I have had the opportunity to connect with some very insightful people, which is furthering my thinking. Similarly, I am spending considerable time each day on conference calls with colleagues and friends from around the world who are concerned about the crisis and its potential responses. In one such meeting convened by a local group and attended by leading health specialists and some with close connections to the government’s Covid-19 responses, it was abundantly clear that a grim future would be inevitable unless effective and decisive steps were taken without any further delay.
“Of late, the government has taken a number of positive steps. However, while the country is now in a near “lockdown” condition, why are we not calling it so? The government offices have been given chhuti, and to many, as we have seen, this is interpreted as “holiday”. In such emergencies, it is always critical to be clear, transparent and decisive—call a spade, a spade! In such situations, it is always the poor who suffer most, particularly those who live hand-to-mouth and depend on meagre wages. The Prime Minister, in her address to the nation, announced a package of financial assistance for those who would be hard-hit by the crisis. These include an incentive package worth Tk 5000 crore (£47) to help the export-oriented sectors. This, as she said emphatically, would be used to pay for workers’ wages. She also announced a few other measures for the rural poor. However, it is not clear whether these are new funds for the looming crisis or part of already existing social welfare schemes run by the government. If it is the former, we need to know how much money the government is committing and also make sure that these are efficiently used. If the latter, the government must commit new funds because the existing schemes reach only a section of the poor.
“This is the time to stay at home, but we must remember to not shut all doors, figuratively speaking. We have to stay active and innovative and extend whatever assistance we can to face this unparalleled crisis together.”