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OP-ED: The defiant home-goers

  • Published at 08:46 pm May 17th, 2021
Ferry ghat shimulia
Throngs of people returning to Dhaka through Shimulia ferry ghat on May 17, 2021 Dhaka Tribune

Are we a nation of only defiant citizens or is there more to it?

One full months’ fasting followed by celebrations of Eid-ul-Fitr is now over, with all its fervour, spirituality, bliss, and happiness. We made changes to our habits to suit the pandemic environment as much as possible. Some of us very consciously tried to impose self restrictions, while others made efforts to cope with the changes around, with no iftar parties, no meeting people. 

Going home and coming back to work during such celebrations has always been hectic even in normal times in the country. When it comes to our yearning for being with our near and dear ones, nothing can really stand in our way. 

A familiar picture

Pictures of millions of people leaving the city in their desperate efforts to reach home on such occasions have been the same now for the last few decades. Loss of lives due to accidents on the way home is not uncommon. We have never been able to mobilize enough resources, discipline the multifarious modes of transportation, and hordes of people who avail those for a smooth journey during such occasions. 

The familiar pictures of people riding on the roofs of railway carriages, water crafts bursting at the seams with joyous home-bound people, the never-ending trails of buses and trucks spread over several kilometres on the highways are but iconic of such celebrations.

This time with Covid-19, it was supposed to be different, with the lockdown still going on. But we have seen one of the worst scenarios in terms of volume of movements, recklessness of people, and even the unfortunate loss of lives. 

The honourable PM sent out a request where she urged citizens to stay wherever they are and thus help in checking the spread of the deadly virus. But unfortunately all seems to have fallen on deaf ears. 

What options did the government have at its disposal? Many opine that if we have to impose a proper lockdown, it could be in the form of a curfew, compelling everybody to remain home for a specified period. Striking a balance between life and livelihood always remained a major consideration to be subtly dealt with. 

In a country like ours, it is extremely difficult to reach out to people who are needy to provide them with required succour on a sustainable basis. This is not because of a lack of resources alone, rather for other reasons such as not having any comprehensive data and a reliable system, or the right organizations to ensure smooth delivery of services to all who need it.

A lenient view

Probably realizing this dire situation, the government has been kind enough to take a lenient view and allow people to lead almost a normal life with some restrictions. But at the same time, the government kept on reminding us of the impending danger in case we flout the bare minimum measures prescribed by experts. 

Now under the prevailing circumstances, was it impossible to predict the behaviour of our citizens? It was shown that members of BGB had been deployed to hold up home bound people in one of the routes. Now if at a particular venue, say 20 BGB persons are deployed where a crowd of a few thousand people turn up, what options does the BGB have to dissuade them? 

People who have already undertaken a journey of several scores of kilometres and managed to reach half way home, can they be sent back? 

To discourage people from undertaking this journey, ferries were kept away from the embarking points. Ferries were meant to carry trucks and lorries, ambulances, etc -- meaning only emergency vehicles, not passengers. Now if thousands of people had already thronged there, what options did the authorities have?

There was chaos, total lack of order, and lack of discipline everywhere. Take, for instance, the instruction promulgated by the ministry of religious affairs saying that only 20 persons will be allowed for prayers in the mosques. This was being observed in a few mosques inside cantonments or some very disciplined residential areas. But mostly it was flouted and no effort was in place to monitor. 

Some mosques religiously tried to follow allowing 20 persons only for a few days, but later discontinued it. Many felt that this was not justified as there were mosques that could easily hold a large number of people even after maintaining sufficient person to person gap and enforcing other health measures. 

Of course there were mosques where reasonable distance was maintained and other health measures stringently observed. The point here is: Why give an instruction from a government organization which cannot be implemented, monitored, or followed up?

What caught everyone’s eye is the endless suffering of people, including of children, women, and the elderly, on their travail to reach home. 

Some burning questions

Why have we failed to motivate our citizens to not undertake this gruelling journey at such a cost? 

Are we a nation of only defiant citizens? Is it only the government and our leaders who are to be blamed? Is there any way we can make our citizens pay heed to such desperate calls for their own safety?

How can the government enforce a real strict lockdown? Is it possible to employ the army to make sure people duly abide by the restrictions imposed? Many would discourage the proposal as it might give a feeling that we are on a war footing. But aren’t we on a war footing already? What are our options if, God forbid, we face a similar situation as that of India?

Brig Gen Qazi Abidus Samad, ndc, psc (Retd) is a freelance contributor. Email: [email protected]

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