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OP-ED: Between people and the economy

  • Published at 09:26 pm April 25th, 2021
A crowded store in New Market store covid-19
A crowded store in Dhaka's New Market Mehedi Hasan/Dhaka Tribune

How political ideologies have determined responses to the pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has initiated significantly dramatic political and humanitarian debates worldwide. The very lives of people from all social categories have been entangled with the political nature of regimes, recovery measures, and the state’s capacity to mitigate covid-19 risks.

Most importantly, this pandemic has given people around the world a heads-up to rethink their position in the political structure and their response to authority’s decisions. It was observed that, despite having similar economic conditions in some cases, governments of different political ideologies have tackled the pandemic in different ways, and citizens have acted differently as well.

The government of Bangladesh initiated the first phase of lockdown on March 26, 2020. In the earlier days, most people strictly followed pandemic-related regulations. People gradually came out of their homes for various reasons and neglected instructions regarding health hazards after the initial stage.

Security forces and mobile courts had to be deployed to monitor and control the situation. Many were fined for not wearing masks, and some were forced to go back home. Lockdowns in some areas were stricter than others as the number of infected people varied in different regions. The number of people who lost their jobs in the private sector rose at an alarming rate.

People with steady incomes could afford to stay home and maintain their quarantine. The situation was very contingent back then. People’s perceptions about lockdown and Covid-19 were proportional to the class difference among them. Working class people, daily wage earners, and garments workers believed it to be a disease of the rich.

Citizens were soon divided into many groups. Incentives and donations offered by the government did not prove to be enough for such a huge population. This lack of faith in the authorities caused massive unrest.

Even though the number of deaths due to Covid-19 kept rising, people -- especially the lower and lower-middle classes -- seemed more concerned with earning their daily bread and rejected the security measures offered by the state, which was rational from their perspective. 

Different patterns of managing Covid-19 were seen in different countries around the world. Countries like China and South Korea took aggressive strategies after initial outbreaks, and were able to control the spread. However, these aggressive approaches also violated the democratic rights of the citizens, even though they proved effective in controlling the outbreak. 

Parallelly, rules were relaxed in stronger democracies like the US and UK, and resulted in devastating consequences. At the very beginning of this outbreak, neither the American nor the British government made testing mandatory for travellers unless they showed significant symptoms.

In direct contrast, the Chinese guideline strictly instructed testing if the traveller came from a Covid-affected country, regardless of symptoms. The Chinese took control of all civil rights, set strict rules, and went for aggressive execution. But they were able to ensure necessary support for the citizens during lockdowns whereas people belonging to large democracies had authority over their decisions, and governments, in a way, permitted them to be their own free agents in dealing with the outbreak.

In line with all this, the roles played by global political elites could not come out profitable for the mass. After 11 months of pandemic misery, where millions had lost their jobs, health, and wealth, total US billionaire wealth increased by $1.3 trillion since mid-March 2020. This development paradox shows the unequal economic growth during a global crisis.

Policymakers worldwide raised important questions about dealing with the pandemic. After hard lockdown phases, economies like Bangladesh and India relaxed their regulations and switched to rather flexible approaches to save their economies. The same goes for the UK and the US, where there were confused strategies regarding control and management.

The Faustian bargain of saving the economy first resulted in short-term benefits, but ended up with long-term misery. For the last two weeks, Bangladesh has been facing the highest death tolls and increasing infection rates, close to 23%. On the other hand, China, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and Thailand -- all of which invested primarily in swift coronavirus suppression -- have effectively eliminated the virus, and subsequently saw their economies begin to grow again.

An important observation is that countries that followed this strategy prove to be the winners in the long run, and secured an advantage. Unfortunately, a pandemic does not act according to rigid political and economic ideologies. Those who escaped strong lockdowns earlier are now left with no choice but to implement stricter lockdowns which are proving to be more destructive than ever for the economy.

Taking these examples and trends of managing the pandemic in the last year, no polarization regarding ideologies, economies, and political philosophies could give a perfect black or white solution. The policymakers must accept this grey area and focus on long-term benefits, with more feasible, locally rooted but globally connected solutions with a strong focus on the mass. 

Politics can never be left out when it comes to making practical and effective policies. There is one common characteristic among all the countries that are fighting against the coronavirus. It is that poor people have suffered unevenly compared to the rich. Countries have developed a competitive attitude within themselves, and the general people were the sufferers of this ruthless competition.

The question that remains is that, though the 21st century has seen new heights of technological and overall global development, this pandemic has proven that, despite the (mainly) neoliberal global growth in the post-MDGs era, economic inequality and the vulnerability of the poor and the marginalized remain the same.

Maybe it is time for policy-makers to re-examine the approaches to political economy and take decisions resulting in long-term benefits while managing a pandemic.

Nishargapratim Bhattacharjee and Rafsan Ahmed are freelance contributors.

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