The government has decided to relax the strict lockdown currently in place throughout the country due to the ravaging new wave of the coronavirus. The new variant called the ‘Delta Variant’ has already created great havoc on the rapid spread of infection in many countries of the world. Our next-door neighbour, India, has already been ravaged with innumerable deaths caused by this new variant. Now, it has made inroads into Bangladesh and is causing deaths across the country, particularly in bordering areas. With time, new areas are being engulfed by the onslaught of the virus, while medical facilities are also being overwhelmed with the rise in patients. Finding no other way to arrest the virus spread, the government had resorted to the strategy of enforcing countrywide lockdown, keeping the export oriented sector particularly the garments sector out of its purview to save the export market which might otherwise be captured by other competitor countries. It is said that the current lockdown is the severest one than the ones that was imposed earlier. The government’s decision of relaxation came in the wake of the forthcoming religious festival of Eid-Ul-Azha, which will be celebrated throughout the country on 21 July.
There are a number of festivals that are part of the lives of the people of Bangladesh. It needs to be mentioned that many of our festivals are linked to religions, seasons and specials occasions. In recent times, international festivals have also been added to the list. However, festivals can be grouped broadly into religious and non-religious. In recent years, different international day observance like the ‘Valentine’s Day’ has also turned into a kind of a festival in the country. Besides, days of national importance have also gained the status and fervour of important festivals observed by people from all walks of life. The ‘Shaheed Dibosh’ on 21 February is not a festival; rather, a remembrance day is observed throughout the country with due importance and mass participation. In 1999, the day was declared as International Mother Language Day by UNESCO. The Independence and also National Day is observed throughout the country on March 26. Different socio-cultural organisations organise cultural functions across the country. Victory day is celebrated on December 16 to commemorate the victory of the allied forces and the subsequent surrender of the Pakistani occupation forces in 1971. Victory Day is being celebrated since 1972 and is a joyous occasion in which the masses take part. Along with placing wreaths at the National Memorial (Jatiyo Smriti Soudha), political parties and socio-economic organisations undertake different programmes to celebrate the day in a befitting manner.The people of Bangladesh believe in and practice different religions. Every religion has its own festivals. Major religious festivals of the Muslims are Eid-Ul-Fitr and Eid-Ul-Azha. Hindus of Bangladesh celebrate Durga Puja in a big way though they have other religious festivals. The Buddhists’ major religious festivals include Buddha Purnima, Madhu Purnima, Kathin Chibardan, etc. The Christians celebrate Christmas and Easter Sunday with due religious fervour and festivities. There are also festivals that are part of the age-old cultural heritage and tradition of the people, which have no relationship with religious belief. ‘Pahela Baishakh’ is the first day of the first month of the Bengali New Year. On this day, the New Year is welcomed with festivities. Different ethnic communities, especially those living in the hill districts, celebrate Biju, also known as the Baisabi Festival, a style of the New Year celebration. Here, it needs to be mentioned that each ethnic community has their own way of celebrating the New Year Festival on the first day of Baishakh. English New Year is observed with associated festivities. In fact, Bangladesh has a long tradition of celebrating the English New Year. In recent years, it is being observed with more vigour and enthusiasm, especially in urban areas of the country.
Observance of festivals in Bangladesh like many other countries around the globe has great economic, social, cultural and psychological implications. During festivals, consumers generally spend more. Before the pandemic, expenditure during festivals was observed a growing trend every subsequent year in Bangladesh, with accelerated economic growth and associated increased income of people. The World Bank in 2014 estimated that retail trade in Bangladesh’s domestic market during the last two Eid festivals reached a staggering $12 billion. It was further reported that the size of the Bangladeshi economy in terms of total gross national income has grown by more than 55 per cent between 2014 and 2018. Then, if Eid spending grew at the same pace, it can be estimated to have reached close to $19 billion in 2019. According to one estimate of 2015, the size of the Durga Puja economy was Tk. 20 billion. Every year, it is also on the rise. According to a report, the Fashion Entrepreneurs Association of Bangladesh had set their sales target at Tk. 17 billion in 2017 for the Pahela Baishakh celebration. The above-mentioned estimatation did not include sales of other commodities, including foods, handicrafts, electronic items, furniture and services like tourism and cultural events, during this festival.
Here, it is very sad to mention that the facts and figures and the buoyant state of the economy during festivals in Bangladesh have been dampened to a great extent by the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been observing festivals on a limited scale amid restrictions. Here, it should be mentioned that the livelihoods of a large number of people depend on the observance of the festivals in a befitting manner. A number of big enterprises, small businesses, artisans and cattle breeders have a large sum of investments and depend on prospective business opportunities during the festivals. The pandemic has caused great havoc to their investment and business opportunities. In a number of cases, many of them have lost their entire investments and are being subjected to enormous economic hardship and suffering.
Under these harsh circumstances and realities, the governments have to make difficult decisions that may cut both ways. They need to make a difficult choice between saving lives and preserving livelihoods. Strict lockdown will undoubtedly reduce the spread of the deadly virus and help save more lives. On the other hand, strict lockdown will destroy the livelihoods of innumerable people and, subsequently, lead them to starvation, abject suffering and death. As the government has already made the decision to relax the lockdown during Eid-Ul-Azha to help people to celebrate it and at the same time save their livelihoods and investments, the government must ensure the availability of maximum healthcare facilities across the country so that the lives of the citizens can be saved. As citizens, we need to act responsibly and abide by all health regulations issued by the concerned agencies of the government to restrict and combat the further resurgence of the deadly virus for saving both our lives and livelihoods.
(The different sources of information are acknowledged with gratitude).
The writer is a Professor, Department of Public Administration, University of Dhaka