A World Torn Asunder

Shahidul Alam

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It’s not a good time for huggers. A virus rips through our social fabric. Distraught children distanced from dying parents. Loved ones unseen, untouched, in sterile cabins. Lovers unable to hold hands. Kids separated from school friends. Smiles hidden by masks. Everyday acts of sympathy and endearment buried under the cosh of lockdown. Torn asunder by a tiny microbe it’s a world like no other.

There are many faces to this pandemic. There have been acts of great generosity by individuals of limited means. Acts of grotesque deceit and corruption by individuals with plenty. The lockdown has also led to clearer skies, cleaner air, quieter streets. Moments of repose. Families together again with time for children.

Some have profited from the virus. Repressive regimes have put in place rules that citizens would rebel against in normal times. COVID-19 has become the Trojan horse used to smuggle in unacceptable practices in the guise of public health.

Globally, chest thumping leaders have used the opportunity to put personal gain way above national or global interest. Sickeningly, a billionaire earned in a day almost as much as every man, woman and child in Bangladesh would have collectively earned in a month had they received a minimum basic wage. The poor have been robbed to amass wealth for the rich.

Those who live hand to mouth, can hardly choose not to work. Death by starvation is no better a choice to death by disease. But it’s a complicated story. The rate of infection in Bangladesh is undeniably lower than might have been expected given the living conditions of the poor and the lack of access to decent medical care. The mystery of lower death rates in Bangladesh cannot be explained easily, limited tests notwithstanding. The woefully poor infrastructure, the rampant corruption in the health sector and the impossibility of the poor to physically distance themselves from each other, would suggest a much higher rate of infection than appears to be present. Many more would have had to be infected for herd immunity to kick in. Has a wave of asymptomatic infection surreptitiously flooded our nation to leave us relatively immune? After all, mild symptoms would hardly be something the poor would fuss over. Their day to day existence requires them to take illness in their stride. A day off work, is a day without pay. Perhaps a day without food.

Modelling, R0, flattening the curve and herd immunity, are now everyday chatter. We’ve tried to move away from the jargon, to the lived experiences of people. The ravages of cyclone Amphan on a population already reeling from the pandemic, buffeted against the searing wind, carrying a corpse through flood waters, the pain etched on a face shattered by grief stare through images that straddle less brutal ones. A father finds time to play with his children. A little girl in wonderland, peers from her make belief world. An infant, cries out, not from pain, but the intrusion of strangers for a probe that scares. Like an alien from outer space, a buyer in full protective gear walks his cow home. If sacrifice was ever to have meaning, this would be the moment. A congregation of five, the maximum allowed by the new rules, prays for deliverance. A relief pack balanced on her head, a woman at dusk, perfectly poised, walks an empty street, the loneliness of the street reflected in her eyes. The street devoid of the bustle of trade. The forlorn wait for testing. The anguished return to the homeland. The burial. The pain of a nation overrun by traders who, in connivance with regulators are ready to sacrifice lives for profit. Protesting garment workers, huddled against the rain, punished for the temerity of demanding wages due.

But resistance continues. While established artists have long sold out, the youth of the land still yearn for freedom. Through songs, poetry and art, they rally against the wrongful arrests, the torture, the disappearances and the ‘crossfire’, which the virus has failed to stem.

Shahidul Alam

Author: Shahidul Alam

Time Magazine Person of the Year 2018. A photographer, writer, curator and activist, Shahidul Alam obtained a PhD in chemistry before switching to photography. His seminal work “The Struggle for Democracy” contributed to the removal of General Ershad. Former president of the Bangladesh Photographic Society, Alam set up the Drik agency, Chobi Mela festival and Pathshala, South Asian Media Institute, considered one of the finest schools of photography in the world. Shown in MOMA New York, Centre Georges Pompidou, Royal Albert Hall and Tate Modern, Alam has been guest curator of Whitechapel Gallery, Winterthur Gallery and Musee de Quai Branly. His awards include Mother Jones, Shilpakala Award and Lifetime Achievement Award at the Dali International Festival of Photography. Speaker at Harvard, Stanford, UCLA, Oxford and Cambridge universities, TEDx, POPTech and National Geographic, Alam chaired the international jury of the prestigious World Press Photo contest. Honorary Fellow of Royal Photographic Society, Alam is visiting professor of Sunderland University in UK and advisory board member of National Geographic Society. John Morris, the former picture editor of Life Magazine describes his book “My journey as a witness”, (listed in “Best Photo Books of 2011” by American Photo), as “The most important book ever written by a photographer.”

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