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Looting in the Time of Corona

The Jamuna TV report was disturbing. The CNG drivers are desperate. Rikshaw driver Nazrul from Kurigram waits forlornly for a passenger. Another waves the 30 taka he has earned. Face taut, eyes glazed he stares from his perch. ‘Will this 30 taka feed me or feed my wife?’ he asks angrily. The roadside shopkeeper doesn’t have customers, but there is no respite from the rent, or the ‘chanda’ (protection money) he has to pay the local ruling party thugs. Roadside restaurants feed these workers. Yes, close contact is risky, and the far from ideal washing arrangements, signals a high risk of contagion. But they have little choice. Death by starvation is no better a choice than death by virus. ‘God will save us,’ one of them says, ‘what other hope do we have?’ The kids who work in the restaurants get ‘food for work’ in a very literal sense. They draw no wages. When there is work, they get fed. He’s a plucky kid. Putting up a brave face to the fact that today he’ll go hungry. No promises for tomorrow. Lockdown, hand wash, drinking lots of water, social distancing. I recognise the importance of these fancy terms. But what does that mean for the 67 million day-labourers of Bangladesh to whom water itself is a luxury?

Early in the morning a day labourer waits for work, near Dhaka University Campus. March 2020.

Concerned about the health of the construction workers at our almost-completed building in Panthapath, we consulted our ‘nearly’ resident doctor Zafrullah Chowdhury. His answer was simple. ‘Close it down if you can’. This had serious implications. We had already extended the rental of our current premises, and there was a hard stop in terms of when we had to move out. If the building wasn’t ready in time, Drik would effectively be homeless. Serious though this was, it couldn’t override the risk to workers’ lives, so the difficult decision to close down the construction site was taken.

That led to other complications. The boundary wall had been taken down recently, opening up the facade of the building to a wider vista. Now, security had become a factor. A new wall had to be built. The building needed to be boarded up. Someone mentioned the word ‘looting’. Yes, with millions out of work and facing starvation, looting was an unpleasant but likely outcome.

I remembered the stoic face of the kid who would go hungry. This was just the beginning. The sunken eyes. The harried look. The angry faces. Something has to give. Prices are already rocketing. Stores are getting empty. This is a famine in the making.

I listen to the debates on Al Jazeera where Trump talks of bailing out the airlines and the other ‘fine’ industries which needed to be saved. At least in the US there were also dissenting voices who talked of bailing out the workers. What is going to happen to Bangladeshi workers? Who is going to bail them out? Where are the gruel kitchens? What meaning do words like social distancing have when hunger gnaws away. What rationale do you give to a child with an empty bowl?

Seen from Gaza, or Syria, or Kashmir, or any refugee camp, the hypocrisy of the international community stares one in the face. Further sanctions against Iran, a government which has released its prisoners after the coronavirus spread. Sanctions against Cuba, sheltering ships unable to dock elsewhere, and sending doctors to provide succour to citizens in faraway lands, fail to shame governments happy to abandon any pretence of human rights. Sanctions continue. Prisoners are sacrificed. Refugees are forgotten. Amassing troops are prioritised over saving lives.

The news of garment orders worth 1.5 billion dollars being cancelled worried our business community. The ultra-rich of Bangladesh would no doubt also feel the pinch. They might even have to do with one less fancy car. The holiday to the Bahamas deferred to a better time. One less diamond in Moosa Bin Shamsher’s shoes. With no car or house to his name, poor Salman Rahman might need to camp out at the Radisson. At the lowest end of the pecking order, the lost orders mean more hungry garment workers. Earning less than the minimum living wage, they live on the threshold. No wages means more than hunger. Death stares in the face.

Rumours about playing down the threat of the virus until after 17th March, might well be unfounded. The slow response and the woeful unpreparedness since, might just be incompetence. Denial could just be the force of habit. But when the government asks the ordinary citizen to stay off work, without providing any cushion, one has to ask why they are there in the first place.

Facing stiff resistance at home, the cancellation of the Modi trip was an embarrassment that the virus did help avoid. The impending financial meltdown might now be blamed on the virus too. But face saving aside, there are lives to be saved.

‘Where will the money come from?’ has been the government’s refrain. Boasts of reaching middle income status sound hollow when the lives of ordinary citizens are no longer a matter of concern for the government. Their rights have long ceased to be a matter of concern. Robbed at the National Elections, voters had abandoned meaningless polls anyway. The farce of demanding physical distancing due to the virus, while staging meaningless by-elections, was another way of looting the electorate. The 5 per cent turnout glossed over by a pliant election commission.

Yes, looting was on the cards.

But the looting began a long time ago. The illicit capital outflows from Bangladesh of US $81.74 billion during the period 2006-2015, has since paled with the more recent looting of the financial institutions. A nation where MPs can buy luxury cars each worth 9.3 million taka, where watches worth crores are sported by MPs with no other income to show but their government salaries, when the most expensive real estate in faraway lands are owned by Gulshan and Baridhara residents, where banking laws are amended to aid further looting, and the liability of financial institutions are brought down to ridiculous levels, it is not the looting at the grocery store that we should be worrying about. It is the treasury itself that has been hijacked.

Do we sit back and accept that this is how it will be? The ordinary Bangladeshi needs to step up to the plate. They united during the road safety and the quota movements. Now it is time to take on the bigger challenge of bringing food to the table. Our corrupt regimes (civil and military bureaucracy included), and the business elite have long had their ‘fingers in the till’. It is futile to expect them to change. The movement for emancipation that began nearly fifty years ago remains unfinished. It is time to smash the chains of oppression. Time to demand that the loot be returned. Time to challenge the validity of a regime that has propped up a parasitic elite that continues to suck the nation dry. The time is now.

Published inBangladeshCOVID 19economyGlobal IssuesHealthHuman rightsShahidul AlamWorld

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