Straight Talk

Covid-19 and Resilient Bangladesh

Abdul Mannan

2 January, 2021 12:00 AM printer

Covid-19 and Resilient Bangladesh

Abdul Mannan

In about three months’ time, Bangladesh will be completing fifty years of its independence. Over last fifty years Bangladesh has gone through many ups and downs,  entered dark alleys, fallen into deep  pits, but managed to come out, often bruised and battered, with new hope and aspirations. This happened mostly during post August 1975, after the killing of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and during the rule of the two military generals, General Ziaur Rahman and General Ershad. With the  fall of General Ershad in 1990 and the country returning back to  parliamentary form of government which was scrapped during Zia’s rule, it was expected that Bangladesh will resume its journey where it left in August of 1975. Unfortunately, things did not work out the way it was expected. As the years passed, the country raced towards a dismal socio-economic condition, misrule, demolition of state institutions and corruption overpowered rationale and good governance. In the election of 1996 though Sheikh Hasina, her party Bangladesh Awami League and the allies were voted to power, it was not easy for her to set up a truly functional state machinery as most the bureaucracy she inherited owed their allegiance to the previous rulers and military dictators. In any country, bureaucracy is an inseparable part of the state machinery. In the election of 2001 Awami League was voted out of power and BNP, this time with the active participation of those who opposed the creation of Bangladesh formed the government without any remorse.

The worst part of her government during Begum Zia’s second term, 2001-2006 was the emergence of her infamous eldest son Tarique Rahman who not only ran a parallel government but also institutionalized corruption and made it all pervasive. The country also became a playground of all types of religious militants and bigots. The world witnessed the possible emergence of another Afghanistan. To make matters worse the country also became a heaven for all sorts of gun runners, most of the weapons destined to the secessionists of North East Indian States. The relationship between Bangladesh and its neighbours were at its lowest, noteworthy being with that of India. In an audacious remark in the National Parliament one of the important ministers in Begum Zia’s cabinet said ‘it is Bangladesh’s duty to morally support the secessionists of NE India’ and he saw this as akin to India helping Bangladesh during our Liberation War. The image of Bangladesh went for a free fall; it took a worst turn when Tarique Rahman with his cohorts and helped by the state machinery masterminded an assassination attempt to kill the then Leader of the Opposition in the Parliament Sheikh Hasina in a public rally through hurling more than a dozen of hand grenades at her on August 21st 2004 in a public rally. Begum Zia and her son’s lust for power went to such an extent that she did not leave any stone unturned to find out means to extend her rule beyond 2006, her approved tenure. However this time luck was not on her side and on 11th January 2007 a military backed civil administration overthrew Begum’s Zia’s government in the name of Care Taker Government (CTG). Though the then version of the Constitution did not approve the CTG to be in power for more than six months, their only duty was to hold a free and fair election and hand over the power to the elected government.  The CTG in a sinister move put the constitution aside and prolonged their rule for about two years. In a mass movement spearheaded by the students and Awami League the power hungry Care Taker Government was compelled to hand over the power to Awami League, the party that emerged as the single largest majority party in the general election of December 2008.

On January 8, 2009 Sheikh Hasina formed the government for the second term and Bangladesh began its journey towards a new era, an era of economic recovery and development and walking towards achieving the dreams of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman and those of three million martyrs who laid down their lives in the war of liberation of 1971. The dreams included making Bangladesh into a modern, secular and democratic state free from hunger, illiteracy, superstition and corruption with strong state institutions and a country capable of creating its own identity which would be able to create a respectful position in the comity of nations. Today looking at all the socio-economic indicators generated by international agencies, even the worst critics of the present government with the ability of reasonable thinking and rationale will agree that in last one decade the country has inched towards the achievement of the dreams of its founders.

The year 2020 was virtually a year which brought all the countries of the world to their knees and yearning for mercy and relief from the all devastating Covid-19 pandemic. It was expected that all the countries of the developing world of Africa, Latin America and Asia will be the worst sufferers considering its lack of readiness to handle a catastrophe of such a magnitude. However contrary to the preconceived belief, Bangladesh has performed much better,  practically in all its socio-economic fronts though it fell below what was expected before the breakdown of the pandemic for obvious reasons. The year 2020 ended with two extraordinary events, one expected and the other happening for the first time. The expected one is the inauguration of distribution of over 343.6 million free text books amongst 416 million students this year by the Prime Minister which she did on Friday. As a precautionary measures this year the books were not received personally by the students instead it was handed over to a token number of students and the teachers, to be later distributed amongst other students. The second ground breaking news was the berthing of an ocean going Panamanian Flag carrier vessel berthing for the first time in the newly emerging Deep Sea port of Matarbari, near Moheshkhali in Cox’s Bazaar. Matarbari will not only have the first Deep Sea port of the country but also will be having a 1200 MW power generating capacity power plant soon to be ready to go into operation.

Over last few months while the developed countries of the west was struggling desperately to survive during this pandemic, incidentally Bangladesh which trails behind all these developed countries has remained resilient and proceeded inching towards achieving the dreams for which the country was created back in 1971. On December 21st US based prestigious media house Bloomberg published its monthly ‘the Covid Resilience Ranking’ where it ranked Bangladesh 20th, the best in South Asia with the island country New Zealand on the top. Of the 53 countries ranked, Mexico was placed at the bottom with US struggling at 37th. According to the UK-based think-tank Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) that prepares a periodic World Economic League Table, Bangladesh’s economy was able to escape a contraction in 2020 and its annual rate of GDP growth will continue to accelerate throughout the 2021-25 period while the world is reeling under an economic crisis due to the Covid-19 pandemic. CEBR also projects that between 2021 and 2025 Bangladesh’s position in the World Economic League Table will improve considerably, with its ranking rising to 25th from its current 41st position. Bangladesh’s annual rate of GDP will accelerate to an average of 8.8 per cent, forecasts CEBR. The country had a growth rate of 8.2 per cent in 2019 while it dipped to 3.8 per cent in 2020 due to the pandemic, according to IMF. Previously CEBR showed, Bangladesh will overtake heavyweights such as Hong Kong, Singapore, Denmark and Norway. The forecast for 2030 is also the same in this recent report. CEBR also lauded its slowdown in its population growth which averaged one per cent per year over the past five years.

The greatest feat in the pandemic year was the completion of the Padma Bridge superstructure and that too with Bangladesh’s own funding defying scores of conspiratorial moves by local and international bodies, groups and individuals.  The government is also mulling to plan for the second Padma Bridge with its own resources and expect to begin the feasibility study within this financial year. The county’s literacy rate has gone up to 72 per cent while persons living above poverty level have reached 76 per cent. Unfortunately still 24 per cent of the country’s population lives below the poverty level of which nearly 14 per cent survives below extreme poverty level which is expected to come down approximately to 7 per cent by next five years. With the commissioning of the Padma Bridge this will be possible as the bridge will usher a new dawn in the south and south-west Bangladesh with new economic activity. The pandemic period began with a dip in the export earnings and expatriate workers returning home. Today the export is picking up and overshadowing all previous records. Bangladesh’s foreign exchange reserve stands as of now at US$ 43 billion, an enviable figure for many countries in the region. Unless income disparity can be minimized, the dreams of the founding fathers will not be completed. Corruption amongst a section of bureaucrats, businessmen and politicians remains endemic. This delays the economic and social growth of the country and these perpetrators go unpunished in many cases.  Because of the prevailing unabated corruption in many places, incompetent people have managed to occupy key positions and that has made many institutions weak. Let this year be a year when corruption at all levels will be at least curved to a minimum level and those accused will be punished as per the law of the country. Towards the end of the year, the half educated Mullahs and religious bigots have shown the audacity to challenge the authority of the state on all sorts of wrong and concocted pretext and planned to disturb normal public life. They must be severely dealt with before they begin to behave like genie out of the bottle.

In the international front, Sheikh Hasina over her last ten year rule has managed to enhance the image of the country to a newer height and this has happened due to her courage, competence and determination. Two issues now not only have become a matter of concern for her but also for the entire nation. The first one is the repatriation of 1.2 million forcibly displaced citizens of Myanmar and pushing them into Bangladesh while the second one is the long standing dispute over the equitable sharing of the Teesta river water between Bangladesh and India. Though India’s Central government has shown keen interest in the past to reach an honourable solution, the non-cooperation of the Paschimbanga Chief Minister still remains an unresolved issue that needs immediate solution. With the Paschimbanga election due in April-May 2021, it is expected that the issue will be given a more realistic thought by the incumbent Paschimbanga Chief Minister. Currently the International Court of Justice is hearing the case against Myanmar for genocide – with Gambia, an OIC member country, being the appellant. So far Myanmar has desperately tried to justify their acts of genocide in their Rakhine State from where these wretched people were displaced. So far Myanmar has failed to convince the court of their action.

The year 2020 belonged to Bangladesh under difficult circumstances and just due to the able leadership of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, the country has come out of a possible abysmal situation which has compelled many of the countries worldwide to their knees. Bangladesh has struggled but it has stood tall and our agriculture and foreign exchange remittance by our expatriate workers played the most important role in keeping the economy afloat. As the year comes to an end, the good news is that the countries of the world have started to administer the much awaited vaccine, this time to bring the pandemic to its knees. It is expected Bangladesh will also soon begin to administer vaccine on its citizens. The biggest challenge will be proper management of the distribution of the vaccine when it comes to Bangladesh.

At the end of the year 2020, it cannot be denied that Bangladesh along with other countries of the world has struggled to overcome the damage caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. Bangladesh has been successful to a great extent but the country is yet to resume its normal socio-economic life. With the cooperation of the people and the current dynamic leadership at the top, 2021 may not be the same as 2020. Let us all pray for a better year and a normal life.


The writer is an analyst and a commentator.