The role of local government in the overall development of a country is immense. In a democratic system of governance, the local government bodies help the central government achieve its goals. This is why local government institutions (LGIs) are considered as an important unit of the central government. The country's overall development gets hampered in many cases, if the LGIs are not made the focal point of development.
One of the pre-conditions of successful implementation of the decentralisation policy is to empower local government institutions in making decisions and implementing them. However, the reality is that in many cases, these institutions are not empowered to operate independently. However, among different tiers of LGIs of Bangladesh, the Union Parishad (UP) - the lowest administrative tier of rural local government - enjoys more autonomy than the other two institutions-the Upazila Parishad (UZP) and the Zila Parishad (ZP). However, the government has retained considerable power to control this institution.
If we think of the LGIs in Bangladesh, it can be said without hesitation that every unit of the local government has been empowered by law to play an important role during an emergency or disaster. When it concerns UPs, it can be seen that Sections 6, 35, 36, 37 and 38 of the Union Parishad Act of 2009 have clearly specified the role of the UPs during disasters.
Now the pertinent question is, to what extent have we used the full potentials of LGIs to deal with the pandemic? In the light of experience of the last one and a half years, it can be said that the amount of assistance that these institutions can provide to the government in dealing with the pandemic has not been utilised entirely so far. These organisations have been used in most cases to distribute services included in the social safety nets.
How can we capitalise on the potentials of LGIs to deal with the catastrophe triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic? Considering the overall situation, we have seen that a large section of the population of Bangladesh lacks awareness about the catastrophic effect of Corona. Many people have no idea how much damage the Coronavirus can cause if it settles in the human body. Nor does the public have a clear idea of the Corona Safety Protocol advised by the government or the World Health Organization. To put it more clearly, there is a lack of public awareness about wearing masks, the appropriate method of wearing masks, the reason to wash hands frequently, and the reason to avoid public gatherings. Since the LGIs are located very close to the people, it is most important to engage them in building awareness among people.
As the Indian Delta variant of Corona spreads widely in rural Bangladesh, the Corona situation has taken a terrible turn in rural areas. Moreover, there is the existence of a stigma among the people about Corona. We have already noticed that when someone gets contaminated in a family by the lethal virus, other family members leave them due to superstition. We have witnessed several incidents across the country where family members have refused to accept the dead body of a corona patient. There is evidence that children have refused to look after corona infected parents. Such inhuman behaviour is not acceptable.
Under this situation, it is important to explain to the people through the representatives of LGIs that most people infected with Corona are recovering, and the disease can be prevented by following the Corona safety protocols. Although it is difficult for the central government or central government agencies to carry out this task, it is much easier to do so through public representatives of LGIs because the representatives know most of the people in their areas and the public, in most cases, follow their directions.
Local government agencies can even assist farmers who are having difficulty harvesting their crops during the lockdown. In this case, LGIs can help the farmers by organising the youths of the area or through members of voluntary organisations. We all should bear in mind that agriculture is one of the most important pillars of our economy. One of the main reasons why Bangladesh has so far been able to overcome this disaster successfully compared to other countries is because agricultural production has not been disrupted. Therefore, it is necessary to grab the opportunity to use the potentials of the LGIs during the pandemic.
In addition, LGIs can play an important role in the implementation of vaccination programmes of the government. At present, vaccination is being provided through Upazila Health Complex. The government has already decided to vaccinate more people by establishing camps at the local levels. In that case, LGIs can play an important role in raising awareness about vaccination among the people and in setting up camps. We need to keep in mind that the pandemic will keep taking a massive turn until most people are vaccinated. Moreover, as the government is making strenuous efforts to bring 80 per cent of the country's population under vaccination by collecting vaccines from various sources, the support of LGIs is essential to successfully complete this activity at the local level.
The responsibilities that LGIs can discharge during the country's disaster must be fully utilised in the fight against Covid-19 pandemic. The government has decided to form committees with the people's representatives at the local level to oversee different activities concerning Covid-19 management. However, much of their potentials require to be utilised to great intensity. Realising the gravity of the current situation, the government should overcome this situation by increasing the involvement of LGIs in the fight against the pandemic and raising awareness among the local people about Corona extinction. This will not only reduce the burden on the central government but also help overcome the cataclysmic effect of the pandemic.
The writer is a Professor of Public Administration at the University of Rajshahi.