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Of epidemics and development

  • Published at 08:21 pm March 12th, 2020
Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Can the coronavirus lead to cleaner habits? 

Walking from Banani to Gulshan the other day I was thinking to myself that all the hygiene advice being given in the media in relation to the coronavirus may result in everyone adopting cleaner habits. 

At that moment, walking at a brisk pace, I went past a man walking at a slower pace and at the time of passing his head turned to his left and he spat some phlegm which hit the side of my face. 

I was both furious and disgusted and grabbed his collar and shouted at him in a mixture of Bangla and English. 

In fact he spoke quite good English and told me that it was my fault entirely because, “Don’t you know you should pass people on the right hand side? The left hand side is Satan’s side, the devil’s side.” 

Being a left-hander, I reacted even more angrily and gave him a lecture about cleanliness and asked him how actions like his can help contain or prevent the spread of the virus. 

I also asked him if he spat anywhere in his house and he replied: “Of course not!” I then went on to say that I thought that the world is God’s house and he should respect it in a better way.

It is vitally important that all aspects of personal and public hygiene and cleanliness are taught at school from a very young age. Only then will attitudes change. At the moment I see college students spitting and dropping paper everywhere. This has to stop.

This unpleasant experience reminded me of the epidemics we faced in 1971 in the Bangladesh refugee camps in India. I remember that by the end of May about 8,000 had died from cholera, but a bigger tragedy was avoided by using the relatively new discovery of ORsaline. 

Another epidemic that spread through the camps was conjunctivitis, “pink eye,” and because the refugees were badly affected, it was known as “Joy Bangla.” And then I remember that we are in the month of March, and I remember March 1972 and the chaos that reigned in Bangladesh with the international organizations failing to coordinate very well. 

I still remember the French-Canadian priest, Father Labbé, who was the director of the Christian Organization for Relief and Rehabilitation (CORR). Over his desk he had a sign reading, “God bless this mess.” That said it all.

Toni Hagen, the head of the UN relief operations at that time, was tearing his hair out. He pointed out at that time that there were $6 million worth of “bloody blankets” and tons of baby food without the means to get it to a solitary baby. 

Even 250,000 sets of long woolen underwear had come from Germany. As Toni Hagen was saying time after time, “Instead of baby food, woolen underwear, and blankets, we need cash.” 

He went on to say: “Bangladesh has been a playground for charitable hobbies. You can’t build bridges with baby food and you can’t transport food with blankets. We need cash.”

The month of March is always a time for reflection, to remember March 1971 as well as March 1972. 

And now, this March, as part of the “Mujib Borsho,” we can reflect on how much Bangladesh has not only overcome but significantly achieved. And yet, we can realize that the achievements could have been even greater if there had not been so much confrontational politics. 

That, for me, is a sad reflection and I always hope that this aspect of life can get much better so that we can, all together, celebrate, in 2021, 50 years of Bangladesh in a uniform and united way. 

Julian Francis has been associated with relief and development activities of Bangladesh since the War of Liberation. In 2012, the government of Bangladesh awarded him the ‘Friends of Liberation War Honour’ in recognition of his work among the refugees in India in 1971, and in 2018 honoured him with full Bangladesh citizenship.

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