Government and governance, Health | Australia, Asia, East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, The Pacific, The World

5 August 2020

Bangladesh’s government must look beyond the immediate public health crisis if it hopes to fix the country’s deep policy problems, Saleh Ahmed writes.

Commentators and politicians across the world have spent much of the pandemic arguing about choices between lives and livelihoods, but the truth is that with stronger governance, most countries would be able to more successfully protect both, and Bangladesh is a great example of this.

One thing often overlooked during crisis management is the weak governance of many developing countries. COVID-19 has been no exception. Poor governance and slow decision-making can take much of the blame for the huge human and economic casualties of the pandemic in countries the world over.

In Bangladesh, a lack of coordination has been one of the major challenges. It has not been alone in this, but the state’s lack of experience with public health crisis management in complex situations has led to some acts of catastrophic mismanagement.

Some of these acts have been a result of crisis procrastination, as has been seen in Brazil, and the United States. Some governments tried to undermine the intensity of the problem at the very beginning of the pandemic outbreak, and have cost their people dearly.

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In addition, Bangladesh suffers from high levels of corruption, and this has had an impact on aid distribution during the crisis, leading to untold community suffering and heartbreak. At the same time, the prevalence of this corruption undermined the government’s willingness to distribute food and other supplies to the people who need them most, helping to make the pandemic response far from efficient.

While the Bangladesh government, like its counterparts across Asia and the world, has taken some major steps to provide support the population during this crisis, no amount of money can overcome its poor governance. Particularly, corruption and the lack of accountability at the local level are severely undermining policy outcomes.

Emergency aid distribution is not the government’s only shortcoming. During the COVID-19 crisis, an inability to distribute important health information has also compromised Bangladesh’s response.

In addition, information is critical during any public health crisis. Panic, uncertainty, and fear, along with false superstitions about the virus, how its spread, and how its treated, are becoming widespread. This happened during the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, and could have been foreseen. It is now increasingly common all over the world in response to COVID-19.

Despite government efforts in Bangladesh, there remain many major myths and misconceptions about how COVID-19 spreads and can affect people, and the failure to combat these myths has been extremely costly.

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To manage a crisis of this scale, government needs the trust of its people, and science-driven decision-making and good governance are crucial at all levels of government. In Bangladesh, even the best pandemic-fighting measures can’t be implemented with misinformation so widespread.

Along with its immediate effects in pandemic management, the government’s failure to get important information to its people, its failure to combat health advice, and even simply radio silence from important government sources has amplified public frustration and sown distrust.

This is undermining the legitimacy of the governments’ future pandemic/crisis measures and initiatives and contributing to a cycle of poor governance and public suffering.

The government’s other major failure has been economic. Leaders barely appear to understand that a large share of working-class people have lost their jobs in the country, and that virtually everyone in Bangladesh is worse off economically than they were before the pandemic.

For many, the most basic needs have been compromised. A huge number of people have no access to medical care, something that is certain to cause even greater human and economic loss in a pandemic.

Bangladesh’s problems are much larger than the global pandemic and are going nowhere soon. If it hopes to build a strong nation in the post-pandemic world, the government needs to invest in employment creation and inclusive growth. It also needs to directly provide food, medical care, and financial support to those people who need it, and initiate a major and permanent expansion of the national social safety net.

Paying attention to agriculture and the rural economy will be also critical. Bangladesh has made some major progress in the United Nations Millennium Development Goals, and is also making progress towards achieving the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, but without further action from the government, COVID-19 could jeopardise years of hard work.

Much of Bangladesh’s future will be affected by decisions made in the next year. If the government hopes to fix the country’s deep issues, it must look to a future post-COVID-19, as well as dealing with the current crisis. If it can tackle its problems with corruption, healthcare, and employment, Bangladesh may have a bright future. But without action, it will be caught in the trap of its poor governance, enduring poverty, and human suffering for years to come.

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