We are in for the long haul. The coronavirus pandemic will not go away anytime soon. It is not important how optimistic we are about the dark clouds lifting from our lives. Neither is it a question of how pessimistic we might feel about the scourge we are trapped in. The point for all of us and all across the globe is one of an acceptance of grim reality.
And the reality is that more people than we can count will die; and millions more will be infected. With 1,433,516 people already dead and the numbers rising, with infection already having laid 61,079,040 people low, we cannot persuade ourselves into believing that the limit has been reached, that life will return to being what it was till earlier this year. We will not be travelling back to where we used to be. Not in 2021, not in 2022. Perhaps we can glimpse a chink of hope, just, in 2023. But by then many more among us will have passed on, many more cemeteries will have dotted the earth. We who live today, even as our friends and families die, even as we awake every morning to be confronted with sad tidings from all over the planet of new obituaries being written, of swift funerals driven by the virus followed by equally swift burials --- we might not wake up tomorrow morning.The reality is what matters. The reality stalking us today is that no one is safe, that death stands ready at all our doorsteps, to strike us down in moments of its choosing. In the putatively safe refuge of our homes, we tune in to news --- of the vaccines Moderna, Pfizer and AstraZeneca have promised will be there for us soon. But we know not when ‘soon’ will be. And we know not if all those vaccines will in the end be able to defeat this invisible enemy we see not, we feel not and yet we know is there. It has not respected frontiers, it has not discriminated between young and old, between affluent and poor, between humble and hubristic. It kills without pity. It assaults us in those moments when we think we are safe. With our masks on, with all that social distancing we keep, with all our endless washing of hands, how will the virus enter our systems, make us short of breath and then decree a shortness of life? But that is indeed what the virus does, is doing, every day and all night.
In this land, this cherished Bangladesh we inhabit, our faith in divinity keeps us going. There is that fatalistic streak in us too, which keeps reminding us that death will come when it will come. Of course it will come. Of course we know that beyond life, there is the cold, dark grave waiting for us. But at a time like these present moments of despair, when we are trapped between optimism and pessimism, it is reality we need to embrace with both hands. To that man behind the counter at the local confectionery, we must tell him to his face that he needs to put a mask on before he serves buyers. He will scowl, but he must be told in no uncertain terms that he will not make any sales as long as he remains a threat to people.
‘No mask no service’ is fine policy. Let it come with another: ‘No mask no buying’, for shopkeepers who believe the coronavirus will pass them by or who think they pose no risks to the lives of others. In these past couple of weeks, policemen and civil officials on our streets have been penalizing pedestrians and commuters who have demonstrated a cavalier attitude to the virus through not wearing masks. And these policemen and officials have done a most commendable thing by distributing masks free to rickshaw-pullers and other people who fall in that most unfortunate of social categories, the poor. But all such efforts need to be backed up by regulations, by legislation if it comes to that. The State must exercise its powers to the full in saving citizens from themselves.
In the tens of thousands of villages which constitute the tapestry of our country, a distribution of responsibility in tackling the coronavirus malady is called for. Preachers in mosques and temples and churches, school teachers and village elders should be clearly instructed to educate people on the dire consequences of the virus that are yet to be. Every village must put aside everything, save this necessity of understanding the coronavirus, if it means to save itself. Plagues do not require permission to kill people. This is the lesson our preachers, from every religious denomination, should tell people. And there should be more --- that every villager, while being reminded of the will of God, must be informed that he or she should brace himself or herself for the long haul. The virus will not die before it has killed many more of us.
In every nook and corner of the country, the old cardinal lesson of God helping those who help themselves needs to be rekindled in our homes. And the one way in which we can help ourselves is through paying attention to science. God needs our faith as we need the munificence of God; and science does not need our bluster. Until a vaccine comes to us, whenever that happens to be, it is science we ought to speak of to our children, our families, our neighbours. That travelling for pleasure is no more an option, that taking life and death easy is foolhardy, that masks can be ignored is reprehensible a thought --- that is the basic lesson in science we must follow today, in our cities and towns and villages and hamlets. It is a lesson our public representatives --- in Parliament, in the upazilas and unions --- must disseminate without waiting for directives from the nation’s capital.
And there is that other equally significant lesson --- that those whose job it is to come to the aid of people infected by the virus must not be afraid to come forward to assist them in their efforts to live. Nothing is nobler in these dark and troubled times than for medical personnel and health workers to instill hope in their patients --- that even if the world around them is dying out, they may well survive well into the future.We are all united in misery today. Every country and every continent is today happy hunting grounds for the coronavirus. The virus is the enemy. And common enemies make us huddle in our collective endeavour for survival.
We are in for the long haul, as people were during the Spanish flu a hundred years ago. Fifty million people, the chronicles tell us, were pushed to sudden graves between 1918 and 1920.
Syed Badrul Ahsan is a writer and columnist