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Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Racism in America: Police chokehold is not the issue

The American project was founded on rank hypocrisies. On the one hand, President Thomas Jefferson, who wrote the stirring words in the Declaration of Independence that upheld “these truths to be self-evident that all men are created equal”, did not free his own slaves (not even Sally Hemings, who bore him six children).

Similarly, the Constitution of the US, celebrated as one of the finest examples of a self-conscious construction of a liberal democratic order, defined Blacks as only three-fifths of a person, not a full human being. Though “slave trade” was abolished by Congress in 1808, a brisk market in slaves continued since it was considered essential to the “Southern life-style” and the mode of production in a plantation economy. Even in 1857, the Supreme Court ruled (Dred Scott v Sanford) that Black people were to be deemed “property”, not “citizens”.

It took a Civil War and three momentous amendments to the constitution (the 13th in 1865, the 14th in 1868, and the 15th in 1870) for slavery to be abolished, for Blacks to be accorded the “due process” protections of citizenship, and for them to receive the right to vote. (Women did not receive that right till the 19th amendment in 1920).

While the abject inhumanity of slavery may have been legally mitigated to some extent, the institutions, practices and values of exclusion, exploitation and devaluation were not.  Constitutional guarantees, and Supreme Court decisions, could be cleverly subverted by the states.  For example, Black people were denied the right to vote through poll taxes, arbitrary registration requirements, literacy tests, grandfather clauses, white primaries and so on. In 1940, 70 years after they had received the right to vote, only 3 percent of Blacks in the South were registered as voters.  Less overt voter suppression efforts continue to this day.

Similarly, discriminatory laws in many Southern states also imposed second-class citizenship on them. There were restrictions on residence, employment, bank loans, travel (they had to sit in the back of the bus) and, till the Court’s decision in Brown (1954), the schools they could attend. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965 removed many of these ostensible barriers, but the shadows remained long, corrosive and cruel.

While slavery may have been “the original sin” through which America came into being, its treatment of other minorities was not very tender. The ones who suffered the most immediately and most grievously were the Native Americans. This land which was theirs was taken away from them. Today, most live in reservations which constitute only 4 percent of US land area.  

They were also physically decimated. They became collateral damage in the relentless westward expansion of the Europeans based on notions of “manifest destiny”. They were killed through forced marches—e.g. the “trail of tears” between 1830-1850, when almost 60,000 of them were uprooted from their habitats and relocated elsewhere, with almost one-fourth dying on the way. There were massacres—e.g. in Bear River, Idaho, 1863, Oak Run, California, 1864, Sand Creek, Colorado, 1864, Marias, Montana, 1870, Wounded Knee, South Dakota, 1890, and many others.  And there were summary executions—e.g. the largest execution in US history was that of Dakota men in Mankato after the Sioux Wars in 1862.

When Columbus “discovered” America, the Native population was between 10-15 million. By the end of the 19th century, thanks to the efforts to civilise and Christianize those “red savages”, it had been reduced to 238,000. Today, it is less than 7m, or about 2 percent of the population.

Smaller minority groups in the US faced similar discrimination. Jews were saddled with the long-standing accusation of being “Christ-killers” and their intellectual and financial skills generated envy and anxiety. They were also considered to be consummate conspirators intent on taking over the world, ironically as bankers and financiers (Henry Ford’s argument), or as Bolshevik revolutionaries (Hitler’s conviction, also echoed in the US).    

The Chinese were the only people to be formally denied immigration into the country through the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Many Chinese, welcomed earlier as “coolie” labourers to lay the railroad tracks, faced harsh treatment and even violence. The Japanese, restricted through a “gentleman’s agreement” in 1907 from coming into the country any more, were herded into internment camps after Pearl Harbor even though there was not a shred of evidence that anyone had done anything wrong. “Indians”, i.e. those from South Asia, were not considered to be “free Whites” and thus not eligible for citizenship (US v Bhagat Singh Thind, 1923). Asian immigration was completely banned in 1924 and, when the door was slightly opened in 1946, limited by strict quotas of about 100 annually from these three countries. 

Thus racism was sown right into the fabric of American history, practices and values. The question that is frequently asked is why, while other minority groups subjected to discrimination were able to prosper later, Blacks did not. There is usually a racist subtext to that question to underscore White assumptions about Black laziness, intellectual inferiority, moral weakness, and collective inability to cooperate, organise and develop social capital. That conclusion is both self-serving and untrue.

First, no other group endured the sheer ferocity and persistence of bigotry in the same way that Blacks did. All others (except Native Americans, whose conditions have not improved) had voluntarily come to the country. The Blacks were captured, enslaved and commodified. They were not scrappy immigrants who came to the land of opportunity to pursue the American dream; they were forcibly brought here and left to contend with their American nightmare. 

Second, while others also faced stereotypes and prejudice, none encountered the uncouth mockery and the sheer physical violence that were inflicted on the Blacks. Minstrel shows, which caricatured Black people as sub-human beings (played by White folks in blackface), were wildly popular. 

But it was the slaps and kicks, the lashes and chains, the nigger hunting licenses and tar-and-featherings, the burning of crosses and the lynchings that were emblematic of the dehumanisation of Black people. According to the Equal Justice Initiative, between 1877 and 1950, more than 4,400 Blacks were lynched. Many of these lynchings became public events which communities enjoyed as spectacle and the celebration of White power.

It is certainly not that Blacks only understood the language of violence. But this was certainly the only language preferred by Whites to speak to them. Those attitudes and tropes remained, manifested in new forms, sometimes hiding behind police badges. This is vigilante justice dispensed and protected by the instruments of the state, and sanctioned by historical practice. Hence we hear about teaching them a lesson, demonstrating overwhelming force, putting them in their place, to “dominate” as President Trump advised the other day, threatening to use the military if needed. It is for this reason too that Philonise Floyd poignantly pointed out, in his testimony to the US Congress, that his brother had been subjected to a modern-day lynching. 

Third, there was a psycho-sexual dimension to this relationship that complicated matters even further. While White men had always been fiercely protective of “their women”, their concern and insecurity regarding Black men were particularly pronounced. Even a hint, a look, a word, the slightest of moves that could be construed as expressing Black lust for a White woman, would provoke savage reprisal. This lasted well into the 20th century.

In 1921, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a Black teenager was accused of molesting a white woman, even though she never pressed charges. In the resulting carnage, there were 10-15 White casualties and, by some estimates, up to 300 Black. The entire Black neighbourhood of Greenwood was set on fire, and more than a thousand homes and businesses were destroyed. Not a single person was convicted.   

Similarly, in 1955, Emmet Till, a 14-year-old boy from Chicago visiting his aunt in Mississippi, was accused of making a pass at a White woman by whistling at her. The boy was tortured to death, so badly brutalised that his mother could not even recognise her own son. The perpetrators were acquitted by an all-White jury. 

Ahrar Ahmad is Director General, Gyantapas Abdur Razzaq Foundation, Dhaka

(The second part of this article will be published next week – A Rahman)

                                                       

Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Technical

Dissecting COVID-19 Mortality Rates

Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is inflicting unprecedented havoc all over the world not only on human lives but also on social, economic, educational and political spheres. The most devastating part is that as scientists, medical professionals, virologists, epidemiologists and so forth come up with a potential cure or preventive medicine, they find that the virus had subtly changed in the meantime such that the medicine is no longer as effective as it is meant to be. It is a sort of cat and mouse game between scientists and the nature, where scientists are pursuing the naturally evolving deadly virus with all its technical arsenals and the nature is changing the characteristics of the viruses to outwit scientists. So far, over the past five months or so, nature is having the upper hand!

Now, setting aside the biological aspects of this devastating virus, parallel work had been going on to find out who the victims were and what were the inherent characteristics of the victims. If these characteristics could be identified precisely, then from the traits of these characteristics adequate protective measures can be prescribed and the likelihood of future damages can be reduced.  

In order to do that, one needs to have sufficiently large database of victims spanning over a period of time covering variables such as races of the victims, genders, demographic distribution, socio-economic conditions, living standards and lifestyle choices, religious adherence etc. Underneath all these variables, there may be few dominant traits which cut across these variables to perpetrate this disease within the population. To filter out these traits, one needs to dissect the mortality figures attributable to various factors.

The overall findings of the Office for National Statistics (ONS) over the past three months or so in England and Wales concur with the statistics in other multicultural and multi-ethnicity countries that black and Asian people, collectively known as Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME), were at higher risk from the novel coronavirus. But within this overall group, there are sub-groups where the risks are widely distributed – the risks vary on economic grounds, on educational grounds, on professional grounds as well as on religious grounds. But in all of these sub-groups, risks of BAME are higher, sometimes significantly higher, than the corresponding white sub-groups’. However, this article concentrates on risks based on religious subgroup.    

What had been identified from the study of mortality rates over the past three months or so in England and Wales was that religions offer a significant factor in fatality figures. Of course, other factors associated with the religious factor such as communal gathering in private houses, distributing and sharing of food items on religious occasions etc may have played significant roles as underlying causes in increasing the fatality figures. Let us look at the overall statistical figures before going into the underlying causes.

The ONS analysis of the mortality figures in England and Wales from March 2 to May 15 show that Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Sikhs and Christians have mortality rates in that order with the Muslims being the highest. The lowest rate is among people who have no-religion. Although the religion of a deceased person is not required to be specified in the death certificate, the ONS had to coordinate the deceased person’s religious affiliation from the 2011 census data, which are the latest available figures. Table 1 shows the percentage distribution of population of various religious groups. It may be noted that study population distribution is somewhat different from the 2011 Census distribution, as some people in the Census may since have passed away or emigrated and hence not available in the study population.

Table 1: Religious groups as used by the ONS
Religious
group
2011 Census
percentage distribution
Study population
percentage distribution
No religion25.126.0
Christian59.358.6
Buddhist0.40.4
Hindu1.51.5
Jewish0.50.5
Muslim4.84.9
Sikh0.80.8
Other religion0.40.4
Not stated or required7.27.0

It had been found that the mortality rate among Muslim men was 98.9 deaths per 100,000 (of Muslim men) and 98.2 deaths per 100,000 for women. For those who said they had no religion in Britain’s 2011 census, the figure was 80.7 deaths per 100,000 males and 47.9 deaths per 100,000 females.

However, when the age-standardised mortality rates (ASMRs) involving COVID-19 were evaluated, the deaths among Muslim religious group became 198.9 deaths per 100,000 males and 98.2 deaths per 100,000 females, which were the highest rates. The corresponding figures among Christians were 92.6 males and 54.6 females. The lowest figures were among those with no religious affiliations; the corresponding figures were 80.7 males and 47.9 females. ASMR is a statistical measure to allow more precise comparisons between two or more populations by eliminating the effects in age structure by using a “standard population”, which is taken as the European Standard Population.

Table 2: Age-standardised mortality rates involving COVID-19 for those aged nine years and over by sex and religious group, England and Wales, 2 March to 15 May 2020
Age-standardised mortality rates involving COVID-19 
Religious groupMalesFemales 
No religion80.747.9 
Christian92.654.6 
Buddhist113.557.4 
Sikh128.669.4 
 Hindu154.893.3 
Jewish187.994.3 
Muslim198.998.2 
Other religion or not stated84.249.2 

The ONS report states that with ethnicity included, it demonstrates that a substantial part of the difference in mortality between religious groups is explained by the different circumstances in which members of these groups are known to live – for example, living in areas with higher levels of socio-economic deprivation and differences in ethnic makeup. The adherents of various religions have different levels of education and career pursuits and that may lead to different socio-economic strata.

Figure 1: Muslim, Sikh or Hindu had higher mortality rates compared to the Christian and no-religion populations

Age-standardised mortality rates of death involving COVID-19 for those aged 9 to 64 years by sex and religious group, England and Wales, 2 March to 15 May 2020. It may be pointed out that, for example, ASMR in Muslim males between 9 and 64 is about 47 per 100,000, whereas for the whole population of Muslim males, i.e. age 9 to 64 and 65+, the figure is 198.9 per 100,000. That shows that the mortality in the age group 65+ is 151.9 per 100,000! Thus, the 65+ Muslim group is over 3 times more vulnerable than the under 65 group in England and Wales!

It had also been found out that the highest mortality rate was among black men at 255.7 per 100,000 compared to a rate of 87 deaths per 100,000 white males. The death rate was 119.8 per 100,000 for black women and 52 per 100,000 for white women.

Thus, COVID-19 pandemic had identified the vulnerability of population as a whole and the various subgroups of population. From those sub-groups the underlying causes such as economic deprivation, lack of education, concentration of people in the community, lifestyles, social patterns, religious adherence and many other factors may be identified.  

  • Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Bangladesh, Cultural, Economic, Human Rights, International, Literary, Political, Religious

Egregious allegations of communalism against Rabindranath

Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) lived through a very turbulent phase in Indian and world history – the period when British Raj attained the peak of its colonial power and exercised most brutal authority in India, the period when Bengal (the state which allowed the first foothold of British merchants in India at the beginning of 18th century) was partitioned off and then annulled, the period of two world wars and the period which saw the rise of unstoppable swadeshi (self-rule) movement.

A poet, a novelist, a litterateur, an artist, a reformer, in short, a myriad of a man, Rabindranath Tagore lived and died in the thick of actions. He not only advanced Bengali language and culture to the world scene but also gave Bengalis – Hindus and Muslims alike – their self-esteem, identity and cultural heritage. His songs are used as national anthems in India as well as in Bangladesh and Sri Lanka’s national anthem drew inspirations from his song.

However, a large section of Bangladeshi die-hard Muslims with the mind-set of Pakistani religious antagonism towards Hindus had been sniping at Tagore ever since the creation of Bangladesh in 1971. The allegations ranged from Rabindranath being communal and anti-Muslims, citing that he opposed the partition of Bengal to deny the Muslims a separate homeland and he opposed setting up of Dhaka University etc. All of these allegations were egregious and conjecture of bigoted minds.

Many Bengali Muslims who lay such allegations on Rabindranath quote Major General (Retd) M A Matin’s book called ‘Amader Swadhinata Sangramer Dharabahikata ebong Prasangik kicchu Katha (Chronology of our freedom struggle and some associated discussions) published by Ahmad Publishing House, Dhaka in 2000. The Retd. Army Officer placed most of his allegations on heresy without any substantiation or corroboration and packaged such opinions as statement of facts!

The author, M A Matin, implied throughout the book that Rabindranath was an orthodox Hindu and hence anti-Muslim and that was why he opposed the partition of Bengal. As a further proof of his anti-Muslim character, he was stated to have opposed the setting up of Dacca (now Dhaka) University.

Let us look at the points whether Rabindranath was an orthodox Hindu and anti-Muslim or not and the reason for his opposition to the partition of Bengal. And then I would look into his attitude towards Dhaka University.

If one looks into Tagore’s ancestry over the last few centuries, one would find that Tagore’s Brahmin clan, who hailed from Jessore, had long and close association with Muslims. Two Brahmin Tagore brothers in Jessore were close to Mohammad Tahir Pir Ali, the wazir of the governor of Jessore, who himself was a Brahmin but converted to Islam for matrimonial and financial reasons. Tahir Pir Ali made Tagore brothers smell and eventually eat meat (probably beef) and because of that event the brothers had been expelled from the orthodox Brahmin sect. However, their whole family remained Brahmins and the brothers were ostracised as ‘Pirali Brahmins’ (Ref: Rabindranath Tagore, The myriad-minded man by Krishna Dutta & Andrew Robinson, Bloomsbury Publishing, UK).

These two brothers (Pirali Brahmins) eventually left Jessore due possibly to social discord and moved to Calcutta (now Kolkata). One of these two brothers’ descendants – two brothers – Darpanarayan settled at Pathuriaghat (whose descendant includes Sharmila Tagore) and Nilmoni (the great-great-grandfather of Rabindranath) settled at Jorasanko. His descendant, Rabindranath’s grandfather, Dwarkanath, a flamboyant zamindar, and his son Debendranath, Rabindranath’s father, started the Brahmo Samaj, which was a sort of philosophical belief more akin to Buddhism and animism. Now, to allege Rabindranath Tagore, a Pirali Brahmin, was an orthodox Brahmin and anti-Muslim would be very much off the mark. Rabindranath published a book called ‘Religion of Man’ which propounded a religion embodying humanity, a religion of human consciousness merging into the limitless creation – shimar majhe ashim tumi. Rabindranath Tagore’s own description of his family as depicted in ‘The Religion of Man’ was, “The unconventional code of life for our family has been a confluence of three cultures, the Hindu, Mohammedan and British”.

In his writings, Rabindranath always showed empathy with the Muslims. In his novel called ‘Ghare Baire’ (The Home and the World), the main character, a Hindu zamindar, stated quite boldly that he would not condone Swadeshi activities if it meant hurting his Muslim subjects – those people were abject poor people, they did not have the luxury of boycotting foreign goods and lose their living. As the story goes, the zamindar gave up his own life when he went to protect his Muslim subjects in the thick of Hindu-Muslim riot. Rabindranath was roundly criticised for such narratives.

It is beyond dispute that Rabindranath opposed the partition of Bengal, not because he wanted to deny the Muslims a separate homeland but because he wanted Hindus and Muslims live together in amity and harmony, as they had been doing for centuries. Moreover, it was quite natural for the Tagore clan to oppose partition, because Tagore’s roots were in East Bengal – Tagore’s zamindari was in Shilaidaha (Kushtia), Rabindranath’s wife was from Jessore (now in the district of Khulna) (Jessore and Khulna were in one district called Jessore until 1892. Rabindranath’s wife, Mrinalini was from Khulna, Ref. Islam o Rabindranath Anyanya Prasanga, by Amitabh Chowdhury, ISBN No. 81-7293-188-3) and the Tagore family maintained close ties with their ancestral home ever since they moved to Kolkata. The partition would deprive Tagore family of its roots. The partition of Bengal was implemented on October 16, 1905. On the day of partition, Rabindranath peacefully and in a friendly gesture initiated the Rakhibandhan (the tying of Rakhi, meaning friendship). The partition was, however, annulled in December 12, 1911.

The very stipulation that the proposed partition of East Bengal would provide a homeland for the Muslims was ludicrous and bog-headed in those days. Those brain-washed Muslims who propagate this view of separate homeland for Muslims are trying to backfit 1940s events (demand for Pakistan) back into the 1900s to tarnish Rabindranath’s character for opposing the partition.

It was stated in MA Matin’s above mentioned book that on March 28, 1912 a huge meeting was organised at Garer Math, Kolkata to protest against the proposed setting-up of Dhaka University and that meeting was presided over by Rabindranath Tagore. Afterwards a delegation of top-level Hindu leaders went to meet Lord Hardinge, the then Viceroy of India, and warned him that the establishment of Dhaka University would face the similar fate to the partition of Bengal. However, there were no reference or corroboration of Rabindranath’s attendance in Garer Math meeting in MA Matin’s book; simply his unsubstantiated assertion.  AZM Abdul Ali, editorial board member of literary magazine ‘Kali o Kolom’, in an article immediately after the publication of MA Matin’s book disputed the statement that Rabindranath attended the meeting and asked MA Matin to provide reference or source of his information, but there was no reply!

An article by Asahabur Rahman in Dhaka Tribune on May 16, 2018 stated that a search in Tagore archives showed that on March 28, 1912 Rabindranath was at Shilaidaha. He left Kolkata on March 24 and stayed at Shilaidaha until April 12 recuperating from his illness. However, he composed 17 poems and songs during those days and, as he usually put the date and name of the place where he composed a piece, he put Shilaidaha as the place where those pieces were composed during that period. So, how could Rabindranath be in Kolkata on March 28, as the MA Matin asserted? 

The Dhaka University was established on the basis of recommendations made by the Nathan Commission, appointed by the government of Bengal, on May 27, 1912. However, due to the outbreak of WW1 (Aug 1914 – Nov 1918), the Commission recommendations were shelved and then nearer the end of the war, the government of India established another Commission -the Saddler Commission – in November 1917 to look into that outstanding matter. On the basis of positive recommendation by the Saddler Commission in March 1919, Dhaka University was eventually established in 1921.

Rabindranath visited Dhaka in February 1926 as a guest of Nawab of Dhaka, Khwaja Habibullah. He was given three receptions by the Dhaka University – two were organised by the Dhaka University Central Students Union (DUCSU) held at the Curzon Hall and the other at Salimullah Muslim Hall (S M Hall) organised by the students of the Hall. If Tagore had been against the establishment of Dhaka University, it was highly unlikely that within five years the students of the university would forget all about his opposition and extend warm welcome and give cordial receptions by the Muslim and Hindu students alike! In addition, various institutions and organisations in Dhaka such as the Jagannath College, Dhaka Collegiate School, Hindu-Muslim Seba Sangha, Dhaka Municipality, Peoples’ Association etc organised special receptions for him.

So, where is the evidence of Tagore’s opposition to the establishment of Dhaka University? MA Matin made the allegations against Tagore without any foundation, without any evidence. Professor Rafiqul Islam of Dhaka University wrote a book entitled Dhaka Bisshobidyaloyer Ashi Bochor based on his long research. His findings didn’t support MA Matin’s assertions at all. Some of the Bengali Muslim writers, now and in the recent past, blinded by Islamic zeal tied up Tagore’s opposition to Bengal partition (which he opposed in order to maintain communal harmony) and fabricated Tagore’s opposition to the Dhaka University to make up a well-rounded story of Tagore’s anti-Muslimness! It is a classic case of joining up a lie with a truth and packaging the whole thing as truth!

 –          Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.   

Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Life as it is

Economic measures we should take in response to COVID-19 in Bangladesh

The 2020-21 budget of Bangladesh, under preparation now, could have been exciting. The country was having an unbroken run of 6 percent or higher growth rate for the last nine years. In 2019, it reached 8.2 percent. Poverty declined to reach 24.3 percent in 2016 (World Bank). Export earnings and remittance income, put together, covered more than three-fourths of the country’s import bill, and the country’s debt service ratio was at a comfortable level of 5.7 percent (in 2018). The achievements in the social sectors (in child and maternal mortality, in education, and nutrition) were praiseworthy, better than many other countries at similar levels of income.  

A number of mega projects involving huge expenditures (such as the Padma Bridge, Deep Sea Port, Rooppur Nuclear Power Plant, Karnaphuli Tunnel, Metro Rail Project) were taken up to develop and modernise the country further. The country was looking forward to celebrating 50 years of its independence (towards the end of 2021) in style.

COVID-19 pandemic has put an end to this euphoria. The highly contagious virus, with its high toll of human lives and livelihoods, pushed the world to a recession. The IMF estimates the world GDP to shrink by 3 percent this year. With supply chains broken, factories, trades and businesses either closed or nearly so, unemployment is expected to rise. The level of unemployment has already reached 26 million in the USA and 22 million in EU. The World Health Organisation (WHO) warned that the virus had not reached its peak yet, and that there could be multiple spells of the virus.

Bangladesh has not been spared either. Although the impact of COVID-19 in terms of infection and fatalities (going by official statistics) remains lower than some developed countries, the casualties (which do not include community deaths and deaths in hundreds of private clinics around the country) can mount in the coming months. Like in most other countries, Bangladesh also imposed lockdown measures. Educational institutions, non-essential services, offices, shops and transportation services, small, medium and large industries including the vibrant and major foreign exchange earner, the readymade garment (RMG) factories, have been closed down.  However, some are opening slowly in recent days after the relaxation of lockdown measures.

The World Bank estimates a sharp decline of Bangladesh’s growth rate to around 2-3 percent in 2020, and further to 1.2-2.9 percent in 2021 from the 2019 growth rate of 8.2 percent. These are way below the 7-8 percent growth needed to reach the middle-income status by 2024.

The lockdowns have seriously disrupted normal economic and social activities in the country. Millions of workers engaged in shops and restaurants, in transport and communication sector, working as domestic help, self-employed as traders, hawkers, day labourers, totalling anywhere between 15-20 million, are expected to lose their livelihoods. With the closure of the readymade garment (RMGs) industry, another four million employees, mostly young women and their families, are expected to face difficult economic and social condition. Their low incomes make them vulnerable even to short periods of unemployment. 

Fear of the virus as well as loss of income are driving thousands of these vulnerable low income urban people to their rural roots. Others, who do not have this option, are staying back in urban slums, where congested living can be the breeding ground of the virus.

Given this background of unprecedented economic and social circumstances, the budget of 2020-21 will have to be significantly different from what could have been an “euphoric” budget. Instead, the budget will be one of damage limitation, caused by external circumstances and rebuilding.

The emergency measures are expected to tackle the emergencies created by the COVID-19 pandemic (in terms of both halting the progress of the virus and providing medical care to those infected), and supporting people survive through their immense economic hardship. The rebuilding measures, on the other hand, will address the issues of restarting the economy with directed support, subsidies, grants, and helping to build institutions to tackle future pandemics, including resurgence of COVID-19.

The emergency measures will have to focus on expanding the capacity of public healthcare institutions, through infrastructure development, procurement of equipment (PPE, masks, ventilators) and medicines (both anti-COVID-19 and for curing COVID-19 infection), and of course providing due support to all medical care staff, most importantly to the frontline care staff. And it will also have to beef up the country’s poor social protection initiatives (which is lowest in the Asia Pacific Region: UN Asia Pacific Region Report April 13, 2020). Part of the prime minister’s cash incentive of about 95.6 thousand crores taka could give the social protection initiative a boost, as well as provide cash incentives to medical workers.

The rebuilding measures, on the other hand, will focus on those sectors which are the main drivers of the economy, i.e. restarting RMGs, facilitating the repatriation of those who might have gotten stuck in Bangladesh. The measures could also include working capital support to small and medium industries, and small loans to traders. Low interest loans could also be provided to small businesses and industries who would like to configure their factory floors and work spaces to conform to the need for social distancing, to avoid further spread of COVID-19.

Beyond these, it will be immensely worthwhile to support agriculture, especially the smallholder farmers, through small loans to farmers, subsidised inputs, water and uninterrupted electricity supply during the dry season (now) and through ensuring availability of seasonal labour for harvesting. Microfinance institutions (MFIs), refinanced by Bangladesh Bank, could play an effective role in this area.

RMG sector, a major foreign exchange earner of the country, and employer of nearly four million workers (mostly for women), will need to be beefed up as early as possible. There could be a special fund to provide subsidised loans to the RMG industries on a case by case basis, judged by their ability to restart production, export and re-employment of staff laid off during the COVID crisis.

All these measures, detailed out and costed, will be a very tall order. The critical issue is how to get the budget financed.

The pandemic related crisis will severely restrict the growth of Bangladesh, and also imports, through reduction of economic activities. Both of these will severely reduce the government’s ability to raise revenue; the latter through reduction of revenue from import duties. The country will have to borrow: from external sources to the extent they are available, but also from domestic sources. These will create inflationary pressure, both because of reduced supply response and lower imports. The challenge will be to channel support to activities which could quickly respond through increased production.

 Dr Atiqur Rahman, economist and former lead strategist of IFAD, Rome, Italy.

Disasters - natural and man-made, Environmental, International, Technical

Building a sustainable society in the age of climate change

In an article published in this website May 15, 2020, I discussed the future of our planet within the context of frontier ethics. The main conclusion was that frontier ethics, which affects our attitudes about the seriousness of environmental problems, will eventually lead to massive resource depletion and ecological disasters, and accelerate the pernicious effects of climate change.

Those who believe in frontier ethics are least concerned about the declining fossil fuel reserves because they are convinced that reserves will never become dry. Their mantra—”Why be efficient if resources are unlimited”—prevents them from using available resources more efficiently. Instead, they maintain that we should increase the search for new reserves, even if it takes us into one of the few remaining pristine wilderness on our planet.

A classic example of someone who preaches and practices frontier ethics is Donald Trump. After becoming president of the United States of America, he signed an executive order opening up the entire coastal plain of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge in Alaska to oil and gas exploration. Until then, it was an environmentally sensitive area long closed to drilling. Furthermore, he gave the coal industry in America a carté blanche to dig wherever there may be signs of coal. He also repealed former president Obama’s Clean Power Plan, giving states more flexibility to keep coal-fired power plants open.

Arguably, societies that believe in frontier ethics are low-synergy societies treading on a path of unsustainability. In contrast, high-synergy societies live in harmony with nature and they seek ways to enhance natural systems. Creating a high-synergy society that lives within the Earth’s means is possible if we adopt a set of sustainable ethics that ensures future generations and other species the resources they need to survive.

The tenets of sustainable ethics are: The Earth has a limited supply of resources, and they are not all for us; humans are a part of nature, subject to its laws; and success stems from efforts to cooperate with the forces of nature. Clearly, sustainable ethics recognises our place in the natural order as one of many millions of species and they favour cooperation over domination. Also, they are diametrically opposed to the tenets of frontier ethics. While frontier ethics leads to exploitive behaviour, sustainable ethics will lead to a less exploitive human presence that can endure for thousands of years.

In addition to the three tenets, there are at least six principles that lie at the core of sustainability. They are conservation, recycling, using renewable resources, restoration, population control and adaptability. Among other measures discussed below, if we follow these principles, we can create and maintain a well-functioning global ecosystem.

In order to build a sustainable society in which future generations and other species can survive and live well, we have to change our thinking process too—from linear to system thinking. Linear thinking sees events in a straight-line sequence, ignoring a complex web of interactions, while system thinking recognises how entire systems function. In the environmental arena, system thinking helps us to see how individual parts work together and how interdependent all life forms are. By becoming better system thinkers, we can learn to avoid impacts that threaten the health and wellbeing of the planet and its organisms.

Because system thinking encourages us to look at the whole, it will naturally force us to look at the root cause of problems, especially environmental ones. Additionally, it can help society to identify key leverage points as to where changes can be made. Moreover, system thinking will enhance our ability to see the big picture as well as connections between various parts that are essential to solving the many environmental problems, particularly those caused by climate change, and putting us on a sustainable path. Unfortunately, most of the world leaders are not system thinkers and therefore cannot guide us toward a sustainable society.

Building a sustainable society requires widespread participation with input from the rich and poor, conservative and liberal, young and old. In fact, sustainable solutions call for action from large and small businesses, individuals and governments. Individuals are important because each one of us is part of the problem. In other words, seemingly insignificant actions by us, albeit small, are responsible for many environmental problems we are facing today.

Achieving a sustainable world also requires massive cooperation between citizens and governments. Cooperation must occur on a much grander scale, with countries working together for the common good of their citizens and the planet. At the same time, we have to develop a unified strategy to fight the unique challenges posed by climate change.

But how do we achieve this cooperation and develop a unified strategy in an era when climate change is an impediment towards sustainable development? Since 1995, world governments have met every year at the so-called Conference of Parties to forge a global response to the climate change emergency. However, besides stating lofty goals, these dysfunctional conferences were either fractious or soporific. Interspersed with moments of rare triumph though, such as the Paris agreement in 2015, they mostly failed to deliver strong commitments to tackle the terror unleashed by climate change.

In the meantime, the impact of climate change on humans, animals and the environment are becoming increasingly unbearable. It is dragging millions of people into grinding poverty. That being the case, virtually no one any longer believes that these conferences will ever be able to tackle climate change, thereby allowing us to lead a sustainable life. If it sounds downbeat, that is because it is.

So how do we create a sustainable future? As noted by Einstein, “In the midst of every crisis, lies great opportunity.” Indeed, from the current crisis caused by the coronavirus pandemic, we can observe some encouraging trends in our behaviour and lifestyle that have profound implications in the fight against climate change. If we can hold on to these trends in the post-pandemic world, we will be able to face the ongoing existential threat of climate change effectively and thus create a sustainable society.

Quamrul Haider is a Professor of Physics at Fordham University, New York.