The ongoing Covid-19 pandemic already looks far more menacing than Noah’s deluge. It seems as if civilization has been crumbling down in front of us. It knows no bounds, caste or creed. Like a hurricane or a wildfire, it engulfs whatever comes in front. Humanity at large is now shivering in the face of this invisible enemy. Even the most optimists are scared to their bones and talk about no room for complacency. This is an uncertain time in an equally uncertain world. The governments all around the world will try to maintain the status quo of a system which, of course, was already struggling to cope with the changing realities just before the advent of coronavirus.
They will try to go ‘local’ or ‘national’ to face the global challenges like pandemics or climate change. For that matter, they will rightly have to opt for massive fiscal spending, monetary easing or regulatory forbearing just for their own survival. Yet, none can deny the massive long-term implications for a battered world. The health system looks so inadequate throughout the free world which fumbled to take this crisis not so seriously. It is in this context that the world will be searching for the leaders who are both global and local, committed to global values, compassionate, courageous and innovative. These are the leaders who understand the people they lead and at the same time the people also understand them. These kinds of ethical leaders are not content with merely following the path their people have been on. Rather they want to take the people where they need to be. These are the leaders who create history. These are the leaders who are created by history. It is in this context we want to shed light on the aesthetic leadership qualities of Bangabandhu, our Father of the Nation, whose response to disaster, both natural and human, could enlighten the world at large at this critical juncture of human history.
Bangabandhu had grown as a compassionate leader out of the grassroots. Even as a village boy he could feel the pain and anguish of the ordinary people around him who remained hungry and unfed due to acute food insecurity. He went out of the way to ask his father to distribute the surplus food from their family store-house to help the wretched of the earth. He demonstrated his humane approach to leadership when he joined hands with his tutor Kazi Abdul Hamid to collect alms every Friday under the banner of ‘Muslim Welfare Association’ to help the poor students. He again demonstrated his depth of compassionate leadership in 1943 when he was a student of Islamia College and also a popular student leader. By this time a terrible famine had spread out in Bengal. In his own words, “Hundreds of thousands of people were swarming to the cities in search of food. But there was no food or clothing left for them. The British had confiscated all naval vessels for the war effort. They had stockpiled rice and wheat to feed their soldiers. Whatever was left had been appropriated by the businessmen. This led to a horrifying situation…Not a day went by without people dying on the city streets…mothers dying in the streets while their babies still suckled; dogs competing with people for leftovers in garbage dumps; children abandoned by their mothers who had run away or sold them driven by hunger.
At times they failed to do even that since there would be no buyers.”(Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, The Unfinished Memoirs, UPL, 2019, p.18). On Mujib’s insistence Suhrawardy, the then Minister of Civil Supplies, organised gruel kitchens in the Muslim League Central office, madrassas and other places of Calcutta. He worked day and night with his fellow volunteers to provide at least one meal to the poor. He would either sleep on a table at the site of the gruel kitchen or return to the dormitory. Around this time he came to Gopalganj to do relief work for the famine-affected poor people. The situation was really bad even here. So he and his friends decided to invite Suhrawardy and other prominent leaders to a South Bangla Conference for Pakistan, hoping that local wealthy people would provide money and food for this conference. He could then feed the hungry from the surplus money and food mobilized for the conference. His idea of social mobilization proved to be a success with support from his father and other influential persons. But he worked so hard for this conference that he again fell ill and had to go back to Calcutta. He was equally forthcoming in organising relief camps for the victims of communal riots and went even to Patna to help the affected people.
He was extremely upset by the amount of bloodshed in those turbulent days foreshadowing the partition of undivided India. With a broken heart he returned to Dhaka, the capital of the eastern province of Pakistan. The Pakistan which they achieved was elitist, communal and biased against Bengalis. Over and above, even the honor of their mother tongue Bangla was violated. And as expected Sheikh Mujib jumped into the Language Movement and got arrested on 11 March 1948. And the rest is history. His prudent decision to organise the secular youths helped him and his peers establish a popular Party called Awami Muslim League, which became Awami League later. His party joined the United Front in provincial election in 1954 and swiped to power with him as the youngest Minister. Even though this government lasted only a few weeks, he rushed to Narayanganj to quell a bloody riot between Bengali and non-Bengali workers. He at times risked his life to fight against such riots. He was deeply involved in saving the lives and properties of the Hindus in a communal riot in the mid-1960s.
But his strong response to disaster was his call for a national emergency through press release on 23rd May 1965 following a cyclone on 11 May in Kotali Para where he himself was hurt. He stood by the cyclone-affected people of that area and asked for adequate relief and assistance for the affected people. Similarly, he rushed to Cox’s Bazar, Sonadia and Moheshkhali in greater Chittagong District following the cyclone of 14 and 15 December 1965. He asked the authorities in unequivocal terms why adequate relief was not rushed to the affected areas immediately. He repeated his response to the disaster following the devastating cyclone of 15 November 1970 in the southern districts of Barisal, Khulna and Patuakhali. He stopped his national election campaign and took a small launch to see for himself the affected region where nearly a million people were killed. His quick visit to the affected area not only revealed his compassion for the affected people but also exposed the hollowness of the government’s slow response. His very presence attracted global media and charities who rushed to the cyclone-affected Bangladesh with huge quantities of relief and money. The self-help and cultural groups also responded positively and stood by the traumatized coastal people following his visit to the affected areas. This first-hand experience later helped Bangabandhu in including demand for coordinated relief and rehabilitation programs for the disaster-prone areas of Bangladesh in his pre-election speech in late 1970. In fact, the non-cooperation movement in March 1971 and the subsequent war of liberation which was launched immediately after initiation of the genocide by Pakistani army was led by him based on his guidelines given in his historic speech given on March 7, 1971. Indeed, the genocide which continued throughout nine months of 1971 was a human disaster. Bangabandhu responded to this human disaster in a well-coordinated planned manner and ensured quick rehabilitation and reconstruction of the economy and society as soon as he took charge of the country in January 1972. His special focus on rehabilitation of the oppressed women and freedom fighters who lost their limbs in the war was an exceptional response to a human disaster.
These ideas helped him in designing the Coastal Preparedness Program in 1973, attracting volunteers to help raise disaster consciousness among coastal people, as well as providing embankments and cyclone shelter centers plus the ‘killas’ (raised grounds) for the livestock. No doubt, he provided on an average 11 percent of the total budget during 1972-75 for disaster management including the construction of embankments and cyclone centers.
Let us learn from Bangabandhu’s humane approach as well as successes from countries like China, South Korea, and Singapore, along with drawbacks from countries like the US, UK and Italy in responding to the unprecedented human disaster which we are facing now. Let’s continue to focus on “Test, Test and Test” followed by isolation and social distancing, if needed on a ‘draconian’ scale, communicate calmly and simply to further raise the consciousness of our ‘complacent’ people and strengthen the public health system as quickly as possible with machines, PPEs and other accessories. We are happy to know that the Government has been moving fast in creating enabling environment to produce half a million PPEs by our local RMGs. I expect BSMMU to be given the leadership role as they produce all the specialist doctors in not only coordinating the health system but also provide short-term in-service training to the doctors to capacitate them. I was feeling a bit uncomfortable to learn (I wish I were wrong!) that they were not given even one of the eight PCR machines procured by the government as they would have utilised it the most. Let them as well come up with refurbished new ICUs just for the corona patients. In addition, the doctors and health personnel exposed to covid-19 patients can be provided with a special health insurance package of Taka 50 lakhs. The premiums can be given by the government or Financial Institutions including insurance companies.
Let there be a small Task Force headed by HPM just on health response, comprising the relevant ministers, secretaries, VC of BSMMU and representatives from the relevant health agencies, Chiefs of BMA and SWACHIB. This Task Force can meet every day at a fixed time to get updates on health issues over the last 24 hours and take immediate policy actions as HPM will be chairing it. The other committee led by the Health Minister along with local committees that are already in action can continue as usual. But this committee has to report to the Task force regularly. Bangladesh has a stunning track record of fighting disasters. I am confident that we will win against this human disaster as well. However, we cannot be overconfident. This could be a long-term and very challenging engagement indeed. Let us give our all to fight this war in line with Bangabandhu’s clarion call. Let’s remain emotionally and digitally connected and, of course, maintaining the social distancing protocol. Let’s stand by the very poor and hungry in this difficult time. Let’s forego this year’s NoboBarsho festival bonus for them. Let me end by saluting our ‘frontline heroes’ (the health personnel and other essential service providers) who have opted to take the risk of their lives for saving our lives.
Dr. Atiur Rahman
Bangabandhu Chair Professor at Dhaka University and former Governor of Bangladesh Bank.
Daily SUN, 31 March, 2020, link