The Editorial Board
The COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 has resulted in a huge loss of life, political distrust and socioeconomic damage in both Bangladesh and West Bengal. Both the Awami League government in Bangladesh and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress (TMC) have been widely criticized for their mismanagement and concealment of facts while both Bengal regions suffer from a lack of health resources in rural areas. Both Bangladesh and West Bengal have had over 500,000 confirmed cases; West Bengal leads with COVID-19 deaths at 10,080 while Bangladesh has reported 7,966. Even during normal times, a large proportion of deaths in South Asia are not recorded by the government because people are more likely to die at home instead of in hospitals. These figures are very likely a gross underestimate of the true scope of mortality due to the Coronavirus disease in Bengal.
At-A-Glance: COVID-19 Situation in Bangladesh
As of January 2021, Bangladesh has had approximately 530,271 confirmed cases and 7,966 deaths from COVID-19. According to a World Health Organization situation report released on December 21, 2020, Bangladesh is ranked as the 30th leading country in COVID-19 cases and deaths, accounting for 0.7% of the COVID-19 disease burden worldwide. Among the mass population in Bangladesh, the economy has suffered, poverty has increased, and people by-and-large are becoming increasingly less concerned about the COVID-19 disease. Some regard safety guidelines as a luxurious matter as the majority of Bangladeshis living under the poverty line ultimately fear not going to work will result in their death by hunger. Bangladesh has also reported only 834 new cases and 30 deaths on December 26, which is the lowest since August 2, 2020, when 886 cases were recorded. Overall, Bangladesh has shown a decline in cases since the first wave of COVID-19 in March of 2020.
While U.S. citizens are able to enter Bangladesh upon a negative COVID-19 test result following a health screening at the airport, the U.S. State Department has issued a Level 3 Travel Health Notice on September 8, 2020, urging American citizens to reconsider travel to Bangladesh.
The Bangladeshi government’s response to the pandemic includes major steps such as the formation of a national COVID-19 response committee spearheaded by the Minister for Health, the closure of all government and private offices, suspension of all domestic and international flights, and deployment of law enforcement in the form of the police and army in order to ensure people maintain social distancing. Additionally, the government of Bangladesh has cancelled the birth centenary celebration of the country’s founding father, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s 50th-anniversary celebration, as well as the celebration of Pohela Boishakh Bengali New Year 1428 on April 14, 2021. Since March 2020, Bangladeshi authorities have also cracked down on spreading misinformation regarding the coronavirus, arresting over a dozen people, including a doctor, students and opposition activists.
Attaining immense notoriety worldwide, more than a dozen Bangladeshi health workers have been arrested on charges of selling thousands of fake COVID-19 negative certificates in early July of 2020. Regent Hospital in Dhaka apparently “collected more than 10,000 samples and tested only 4,200 of them at different government health facilities. But they issued COVID-19 reports for all,” according to Lt. Col. Ashik Billah, spokesman of the elite anti-crime unit of the Bangladeshi police stated. Not only had the hospital’s registration expired in 2014, but the hospital was also charging at least $45 USD for each coronavirus test. The Bangladeshi Rapid Action Battalion, an elite anti-crime and anti-terrorism unit of the Bangladeshi police, raided the private hospital, which was one of the hospitals chosen by the government to treat COVID-19 patients.
Under the watch of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the country has seen an economic stimulus rollout, transnational cooperation and active measures to stabilize the commodity market by preventing the price of rice from doubling and instead overseeing a 30% increase. In May 2020, the Bangladeshi government issued seven stimulus packages targeted at different sectors of the economy, but has ultimately only benefited the garment, industrial and service sectors. A disproportionate allocation of over $11 billion USD aimed at the social security sector has catered to the rural poor instead of the urban poor. The Bangladeshi government has also distributed over $2.4 billion USD in loans to the Cottage, Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (CSMEs) in the country’s 2021 budget as the informal sector and urban poor face difficulties accessing this loan due to questions of legality over their businesses.
On January 21, 2021, a United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees report made public that Cox’s Bazar had over 5,600 confirmed cases of COVID-19, of which 360 cases were among Rohingya refugees living in the 34 camps in the district. Ten Rohingya refugees have died from COVID-19 according to the report as COVID-19 treatment by government agencies as well as humanitarian agencies on the ground attempt to support patients.
At-A-Glance: COVID-19 Situation in West Bengal
As of January 2021, West Bengal has reported 567,000 cases, rising at about 400 a day, as well as 10,080 deaths, increasing at about 10 a day. In July 2020, 2019 Nobel Laureate and MIT Economist Abhijit Banerjee sent an SMS to twenty-five million individuals within West Bengal with a two-and-a-half-minute clip by Banerjee himself telling citizens to report symptoms to local public health workers and emphasize health-preserving behavior such as social distancing and taking care of personal hygiene. The West Bengal government reports a total of 12,440 COVID-19 beds in the state, with most – 11,648 – of them vacant. These figures have come under criticism though as the state government has significantly overreported its preparedness by including beds not yet ready to accept COVID-19 patients. The state government has also been accused of intentionally underreporting deaths, by listing comorbidities as the cause of death for many who have succumbed to the disease.
West Bengal, unlike Bangladesh, has shown exponential growth in both confirmed COVID-19 cases and deaths well into the end of the year. These cases saw their largest spike during the Durga Puja festivities in late October, with 4,069 cases reported on the first day of festivities alone. Government hospital occupancy shot up from 63% in September to 77% by the end of October. Widespread adoption of mask-wearing and strict restrictions on Pandal occupancy, however appear to have prevented an uncontrollable growth of the disease. The Calcutta High Court mandated that pandals be declared No Entry Zones – only allowing dhak players, priests, and pujo organizers inside, and drafted construction guidelines for pandals including keeping all four sides open in order to allow proper ventilation. The state government provided grants to Durga Puja committees for the procurement of COVID-19 protection equipment, and a one-time grant of Rs 2000 ($27 USD) to 80,000 hawkers to help make up for lost revenue during the festival time. Many puja organizers streamed their rituals online, and Bengalis found innovative ways to celebrate the festival while staying safe.
Durga Puja celebrations in Bangladesh were similarly subdued, as the Bangladesh Puja Udjapan Parishad urged strict maintenance of guidelines and directives laid out by the Health Services Division including the banning of processions during immersion of idols on Bijoya Dashami (the tenth and final day of Durga Puja), and avoidance of prashad distribution (food offerings), arati (dance), and cultural festivals.
On March 24 Prime Minister Modi announced a nationwide lockdown in India, mandating that almost all citizens stay at home for 21 days with less than 4 hours’ notice. Millions of migrant workers were instantly rendered unemployed and unable to afford food or rent. All forms of passenger transportation were shut down, resulting in millions of interstate migrant laborers being stranded in cities without any means of returning to their hometowns. Many traveled thousands of miles by foot to return to their homes, resulting in 198 migrants dying in accidents on the road. West Bengal ranks fifth among states sending their workers to labor in other parts of the country. Kolkata and other cities in West Bengal also are home to millions of workers from adjoining states like Bihar and Orissa. The State government paid for the railway tickets for millions of returning Bengali migrant workers, but many continue to face hardships and unemployment to date.
True to character, the West Bengal government response on Covid safety has elicited strong reactions from every side of the political landscape in West Bengal. The Congress Party and Left Parties hailed the Calcutta High Court’s Pujo guidelines, while some in Mamata Banerjee’s TMC party criticized them as being too stringent. Dilip Ghosh, the president of the Bengal unit of Narendra Modi’s Hindu-Nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), went one step further claiming that Coronavirus was over and that the state government’s restrictions were aimed at curbing campaigning for the 2021 Legislative Assembly elections in West Bengal. Ghosh was subsequently hospitalized with COVID-19 in late October. As electioneering begins to enter full swing, it is yet to be seen what the impact of large political rallies will be on the spread of SARS-CoV-2 in West Bengal. Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee’s handling of the migrant worker crisis has come under fire as many people have accused her party of extorting and neglecting migrant laborers. Banerjee has recently pledged free vaccines to everybody in the state, as India begins the rollout of the Oxford/AstraZeneca Covishield vaccine and the domestically developed Covaxin made by Bharat Biotech. This is an ambitious target that is hopefully more than a political ploy ahead of the elections.
The COVID-19 pandemic has sharply exacerbated communal tensions in West Bengal. National news outlets and political figures blamed the national spread of the virus on the Tablighi Jamaat, an Islamic movement whose meeting in Delhi in March became a large superspreader event. Violence erupted on May 12 in Telinipara, 25 miles from Kolkata, when Hindutva mobs attacked Muslim residents, vandalizing their homes, shops, and places of worship, while blaming them for the spread of the virus. This far-right rhetoric has dangerously become the norm in Indian politics and media. The BJP has suddenly become a strong force in West Bengal politics, while the Left Parties and Congress Party have crumbled under TMC rule. As the influence of Hindutva grows in the state because of constant hate speech and fake news, such violence will continue to increase and religious minorities will continue to be scapegoated for disasters such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
The COVID-19 response in Bengal was complicated by the devastation wreaked by Cyclone Amphan. The cyclone made landfall on May 20, south of Calcutta in the Sundarbans – mangrove forests straddling the border of India and Bangladesh. The Sundarbans are a precious habitat for many endangered species of plants and animals and are also home to 7.5 million people in both countries. The cyclone wiped out 28% of the Sundarbans forests in West Bengal and damaged an additional 25% of the forest area. This was the costliest tropical storm to ever hit the Bay of Bengal, resulting in $13 Billion in damages in West Bengal alone, as well as taking almost 100 lives and washing away almost 2 million hectares of fertile cropland. In Bangladesh, more than 100,000 people were displaced as more than 50,000 houses were destroyed.
Adherence to COVID-19 guidelines required emergency shelters in both countries to house victims at a lower capacity than otherwise possible. Severed power lines, flooding, and fallen trees meant that it took weeks for relief workers to reach remote villages. Amphan, like Cyclone Aila in 2009, has inundated thousands of acres of farmland with saline water, rendering much cropland in the Sundarbans region unsuitable for cultivation. This will have lasting impacts on agriculture and the local economy, and will likely trigger large migrations of peasants towards urban areas. Large swaths of the city of Kolkata were flooded and faced power and water outages, lasting for days as the Kolkata Municipal Corporation worked tirelessly to get the city up and running again. Kolkata airport was flooded, and flights were canceled for days as critical infrastructure faced heavy damage.
As a country that is vulnerable to imminent natural disasters due to climate change, Bangladesh’s public health and economic crisis at the hands of COVID-19 could get much worse if its government does not act quickly and wisely. In his January 2021 report published by Environmental Research journal, Dhaka University environmental studies professor Mostafizur Rahman ran a set of statistical techniques to analyze the responses (n = 1590) of different social groups (healthcare professionals, academics, students, Government and NGO officials, and businessmen) under three different scenarios.
It was found that climate hazards such as floods or further cyclones like Amphan would intensely aggravate the impacts of the current coronavirus pandemic. In addition, scenarios in which other disease outbreaks, such as increased spread of dengue, cholera, and diarrhea, were also predicted to have this same consequence. The causes of these consequences are thought to stem from the fragile healthcare system in Bangladesh, and how it would very likely collapse if further unprecedented pressure was placed on it. Mostafizur concludes that the way in which these consequences can best be avoided, or at least mitigated, is by creating a stringent strategic plan that would be available if emergency measures were required. If the government doesn’t implement such a plan before any of the above described scenarios become a reality, we may end up seeing the great economic progress Bangladesh has made come to a complete halt, or even erased altogether.
The topic of COVID-19 impacting Bengal cannot be discussed without drawing light on the fact that these areas have been disproportionately affected by COVID-19 on a basic genetic level. Recent research has shown that individuals carrying a specific strand of DNA on their third chromosome that was inherited from our neanderthal ancestors are more prone to having severe complications from COVID-19. Due to interbreeding with our neanderthal ancestors that happened sixty thousand years ago, this gene is now present in specific groups of modern humans today. Only eight percent of Europeans carry the gene, four percent in East Asians, and almost no one in Africa. Meanwhile, it is present in one-third of the South Asian population, and in two-thirds of Bangladesh’s population. Bangladesh has the single largest population of gene-carriers out of all of the world’s countries. It is still unclear what led this gene to be passed down to modern humans but because other Neanderthal genes have proven helpful for fighting against certain illnesses, scientists believe the gene may have helped with other viruses in the past. Research is yet to be done on why South Asians are at a disproportionate risk of carrying this gene and Bangladeshis even more so.
The situation between Bangladesh and West Bengal has relatively improved with respect to containing the pandemic, but internal forces such as corruption and the lack of resources in rural areas and external forces such as the return of migrant workers, pose serious problems in the coming months. Bangladesh, being a fully independent country, has much greater access to international aid and coverage. West Bengal, being a sub-national entity within India with a tumultuous political landscape has had less focus and resources during these unprecedented times. Both Bangladesh and West Bengal have done well to suspend timeless celebrations, but suffer from infrastructure which prioritizes populations closer to urban centers, leaving other people to move and adjust accordingly. Academics and government officials alike are uniting their efforts to navigate the pandemic in Bengal, as the greater populations have grown accustomed to the new normal of pandemic life by abiding by social distancing and stay-at-home orders.
Bangladesh signed a deal in November 2020 with the Serum Institute of India to buy 30 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine, free of cost, for its population of 160 million. In West Bengal, around 90,000 frontline health workers at government and private hospitals have been enrolled for the vaccination’s first phase. Ultimately, the next few months will show whether vaccinations alongside government-led social distancing and mask-wearing initiatives will steer both Bengals beyond flattening the curve of COVID-19 and towards revitalizing both the economy and society of Bangladesh and West Bengal.
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The assertion that Bengalis are genetically predisposed to be more vulnerable to Covid is fundamentally flawed. The cited research looked at Bengali migrant populations in the UK and compared relative Covid outcomes across ethnicities without any consideration for socioeconomic status and class differences. There is plenty of evidence on how the latter two factors affect Covid outcomes based on the systemic racism that is ingrained within Western nations such as the UK (Grenfell towers anyone?). If indeed there is a genetic predisposition that is driving Covid outcomes, as Dalton suggests and the editors uncritically assert here, then why is that not reflected in the data? The authors report that Bangladesh accounts for 0.7% of global Covid burden – so how is that Bengalis are disproportionately affected? Even with normalized data for mortality and infection, the Bengal region doesn’t show the disproportionate effect that is being ascribed to genetic determinism. Even worse, genetic determinism shifts the onus on the individual and draws attention away from historical and political conditions that give rise to such health inequities in the Bengal region, and provides more fodder to xenophobes and white supremacists. Respectfully, I ask that the authors vet such research before citing it uncritically.