Advanced science, Bangladesh, Disasters - natural and man-made, Economic, Environmental, International, Life as it is, Political, Technical

COVID-19 vaccine facing temporary problems

The COVID-19 vaccine development round the world is going ahead in serious earnest. World’s top pharmaceutical companies are going head to head, throwing up their top scientists and technologists as well as investing large amounts of scarce resources, even when their businesses are in doldrums. The governments of various countries are also scrambling to get to the most promising candidate and at the same time hedging their bets simultaneously on a few rival companies.

What is pushing the whole world to this mad rush? The COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, is the most vicious virus to ravage human species during the last 100 years or so. This virus has claimed more than 27.6 million positively identified infection cases and 898,000 deaths round the world. Needless to say, many more infections and many more deaths had gone unreported and unidentified.

The vaccine against this virus, as in all other viruses, has to go through certain internationally accepted and proven steps to ensure safety and effectiveness to the public. If any short-cut is made or any corners are cut, then the confidence of the public to accept this medicine or any future medicine will be seriously shaken.  

Of the hundreds of potential COVID-19 vaccines now in development round the glove, six are in the final stages of testing. This final stage is known as phase three clinical trial. Each one of these vaccines had gone through phase one and phase two testing before reaching the final phase. Only compromise that was allowed to these vaccines because of the urgency of this medication that phase one and phase two were allowed to be combined and run concurrently. These phases had to show that they are safe (with only short-term side effects, if identified, and no unexpected serious effects) and they elicit an immune response. The third phase is the final stage before approval is offered.

Usually the phase three trial comprises, what is known as case-control study, which is primarily a statistical process. The case group receives the actual vaccine which is being tested and the control group receives placebo i.e. simple saline or vaccine against a different disease. The selection of case-control groups of sample requires careful consideration and vetting. These sample groups should favourably reflect each other in parameters like racial mix, age distribution, gender distribution, economic conditions, patterns of behaviour and social habits.

To demonstrate the efficacy of the vaccine, there must be significantly fewer cases of the target disease in the vaccinated group compared to the control group. Depending on infection rates of the disease, a phase three vaccine trial may involve thousands to even tens of thousands of people. The bigger the sample size, the more reliable would be the output. To be approved, vaccines need to demonstrate that they are safe and effective.

One of these is the vaccine that the University of Oxford is developing – known as Oxford vaccine. This vaccine has passed through phase one and phase two testing with flying colours and now undergoing phase three testing. The purpose of a phase three trial is to assess whether this vaccine-induced immune response is strong enough to actually protect people from COVID-19. The vaccine is designed to provoke a T cell response within 14 days of vaccination – when white blood cells attack cells infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus – and an antibody response within 28 days – when antibodies are able to neutralise the virus so that it cannot infect cells when initially contracted.

In the Oxford vaccine clinical trial, five countries in five continents have been chosen – India, the UK, South Africa, Brazil and the US. Thus, a wide variety of rich and developing countries in different climatic conditions had been chosen. The vaccine is being evaluated in these regions and hence the result would give a generic output applicable to almost the whole world.

In the first instance, nearly 17,000 people in three countries – the UK, South Africa and Brazil – have received the vaccines, with half being in the control group. These people would then receive booster vaccination between one and three months after the first vaccination. Exactly the same procedure is followed for both case and control groups, so that the volunteers do not know whether they received actual or placebo dose against COVID-19.

The data will be analysed statistically for each country and the results will be scrutinised and assessed by the regulatory bodies. If the results are positive, then regulatory bodies will approve of the vaccine for general use. On the other hand, if the result is marginal then there may be requirements of further improvement in the quality of vaccine or further clinical trial. This will inevitably delay in the use of vaccine by the general public.

AstraZeneca, the firm partnering Oxford to develop the vaccine, is overseeing a scaling up of manufacturing in parallel with clinical testing so that hundreds of millions of doses can be available if the vaccine is shown to be safe and effective. India’s Serum Institute has already started manufacturing the University of Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine candidate before clinical trials have even been completed. This is to avoid any subsequent delay if the vaccine is approved.

However, a spokesman for AstraZeneca told the Guardian newspaper in the UK that the trial had been stopped to review the “potentially unexplained illness” in one of the participants. The spokesman also stressed that the adverse reaction was only recorded in a single participant and said pausing trials was common during vaccine development.

Notwithstanding the technical issues involved in producing medicines, Donald Trump tarnished the world-wide efforts to produce vaccines with his political agenda of getting re-elected. He declared that the vaccines would be available two days before the US presidential election on 5 November and thereby implicitly and egregiously taking credit for producing COVID-19 cure under his watch!.

However, a group of nine vaccine developers has announced a ‘historic pledge’ to uphold scientific and ethical standards in the search for coronavirus vaccine. The group includes such giant pharmaceutical companies as Pfizer, Merck, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson, BioNTech, GlaxoSmithKline, Moderna and Novavax. By their pledge, they asserted that no matter what the politically motivated pressure may be exerted on them, they will ‘always make the safety and well-being of vaccinated individuals their top priority’. Self-publicised egoistic egregious political leaders will come and go, but the pharmaceutical companies are here to stay to produce and serve the people.

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Bangladesh, Cultural, International, Life as it is, Literary, Political

Lies and distortions in Indian subcontinent’s history

Egregious claims and blatant manipulation of historical facts were political armoury of Indian administrations from post-medieval period right up to the present time. The name India is used here to represent the whole of the Indian sub-continent covering the present-day Indian State, Bangladesh as well as Pakistan.

Indian subcontinent

The British Imperialism, while India was under British rule, used to segregate and differentiate cultural and emotional narrative of Indian people, which comprise primarily Hindus, Muslims and Buddhists to pursue its objectives. The Secretary of State, Wood in a letter to Lord Elgin (Governor General of Canada (1847 – 54) and India (1862 – 63) mentioned, “We have maintained our power in India by playing off one part against the other and we must continue to do so, Do all you can, therefore to prevent all having a common feeling.”

George Francis Hamilton, Secretary of State of India wrote to Lord Curzon on 26 March 1886, “I think the real danger to our rule, not now, but say 50 years hence is the gradual adoption and extension of Western ideas of agitation organisation and if we could break educated Indians into two sections holding widely different views, we should, by such a division, strengthen our position against the subtle and continuous attack which the spread of education must make upon our system of government. We should so plan educational text-books that the differences between community and community are further strengthened.”

Secretary Cross sent a message to Governor General Dufferin that “This division of religious feeling is greatly to our advantage and I look for some good as a result of your Committee of Inquiry on Indian Education and on teaching material”.

These were the policy objectives of the British Imperialism. Persistent use of these egregious objectives formed the underlying base that there were no common factors in social, political or economic lives of Indian people. This distortion paved the way for communal segregation in India and the emergence of Two Nation Theory (TNT) spearheaded by Mohammed Ali Jinnah. 

It is quite disturbing to note that nearly all governments in India from post-colonial era right up to the present time pursued the same objective violation of historical facts and information as an effective administrative tool.

The legacy of British colonial policy of establishing objective disunity among the Indian people was firmly adopted by the independent Indian State whereby the Indian history text-books were so falsified and distorted as to give an impression that the medieval period of Indian history was full of atrocities committed by Muslim rulers on their Hindu subject and the Hindus had to suffer terrible indignities under the Islamic rule.

One concrete example of deliberate distortion and lies in Indian text books was cited by Dr B N Pande, ex-Governor of the Indian State of Orissa, in his book, “History in the Service of Imperialism”, that a history text book for high schools cited that 3,000 Brahmins committed suicide as ‘Tipu Sultan wanted to convert them forcibly into the fold of Islam’. Dr Pande wrote to the author of the text book, Dr Har Prashad Shastri to give him the source material of such information. After many reminders, a reply from Dr Shastri came saying that he had taken the information from the Mysore Gazetteer. When Dr Pande tried to contact Mysore Gazetteer, there was no response and eventually Prof. Srinatia of Mysore University informed Dr Pande that the suicide of 3,000 Brahmins was nowhere in the Mysore Gazetteer and he was certain no such incident did ever take place.

The said history text book was originally prescribed in Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Orissa, U.P., M.P., and Rajasthan. Dr Pande wrote to Ashutosh Mukherjee, the then Vice Chancellor of Calcutta University, with all the evidence of falsification in the text book by Dr Shastri. The book was proscribed in all states except U.P., which was utterly shocking to Dr Pande.

It was not only the British Imperialism or the State of India that distort facts or disseminate historical misinformation to serve their perverse political purpose; Pakistan and Bangladesh are equally  also guilty of falsification, exaggeration and manipulation of historical records to serve their selfish ends.

During the nine months of liberation war (from 26 March 1971 to 16 December 1971) in Bangladesh, admittedly a large number of people, mostly civilians, had been killed. The estimates of death toll produced by various individuals or organisations vary between 50,000 to 500,000. In the book called Dead Reckoning: Memories of the 1971 Bangladesh War, Sarmila Bose stated that between 50,000 and 100,000 may have been killed. The figure was strongly disputed by the writer Naeem Mohajemen as being flawed. A 2008 British Medical Journal study estimated that up to 269,000 civilians may have died as a result of the conflict; this figure is far higher than the previous estimate of 58,000 from Uppsala University and the Peace Research Institute, Oslo. A study published by the Cholera Hospital in Dhaka in 1976 in a prestigious journal called ‘Population Studies’ stated that about 500,000 “excess death” may have occurred because of the war. The US CIA carried out its own estimate and came to the conclusion that 200,000 had died during the war.

But Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the father of the nation, stated that 3 million (3,000,000) people had died as a result of the liberation war. He did not provide any details or breakdown of the death figure, just the sum total of death figure, which was about ten times higher than the consensus figure.

It came out subsequently in the political circles in Bangladesh that when Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returned to Bangladesh via London from the Pakistani prison in 1972, he was given a death figure of three lakh (300,000) by his trusted young political leader, Abdur Razzaq. But when Mujibur Rahman gave a press conference to the international journalists shortly after that, he translated three lakh (300,000) to three million (3,000,000) death toll. That mistake of 10 times exaggeration was never admitted or amended by the government. The presumption was that if the country could get away with higher death toll, all the more preferable.  

Pakistan does not fall behind at all in its bid of mendacious claims. Pakistani textbooks tried to ignore or omit country’s non-existence prior to 1947 and the territory’s shared history with India over the centuries – its multicultural, multi-ethnic and multi-religious past. Pakistan’s history began, as it is claimed, with the conquest of Sind by the Umayyad Caliphate, led by the young General Mohammad bin Qasim in 711 AD. In one text book, it was claimed that Pakistan had suffered politically and militarily over the last thirteen centuries! This sort of history book only helps to create misinformed and blockheaded adults out of the younger generation. Pakistan’s gung-ho approach in dealing with India was not very helpful either to its national perspective. In the 1965 war with India, Pakistan’s history books claimed that Pakistan’s Army conquered large areas of India, and when India was on the verge of defeat, she asked for cease-fire through the UN! That was a blatant lie. With that mindset of super power status, Pakistan approached the 1971 crack-down of East Pakistan, which in fact resulted in the breakup of the country and the birth of Bangladesh. That war could even destroy the very existence of Pakistan. 

Such egregious distortion of facts by independent States of the sub-continent only helps to sow the seeds of dishonesty and corruption in the minds of younger people. If the State thinks that by lying and making exaggerated claims of its power and authority it can get away with falsehood and at the same time take misplaced credit, then the individuals of these States would be tempted to think why can’t they make similar bids of unfounded claims and reap the benefits?

–           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.

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

Why should we care about the air we breathe in?

If you live in Dhaka, a city that is perennially drowned in a sea of polluted air, you may think that a scarlet sunrise or sunset blazing across the horizon is a sight to behold. However, there is an ugly story behind this pretty picture. It is air pollution. Indeed, pollutants of any kind in the air will make sunrise and sunset colourful.

A dusty road in Dhaka

Pollutants in the air arise from two major sources: natural and anthropogenic. Globally, the largest sources are natural events: dust storms, forest fires, volcanoes, earthquakes, biological decay and the like. In sheer quantity, natural pollutants often outweigh the anthropogenic pollutants that generally create the most significant long-term threat to the biosphere. Why? Natural pollutants come from widely dispersed sources or infrequent events. As such, they do not substantially raise the ambient pollutant concentration, and thus have little effect on the environment.

Some of the major anthropogenic pollutants in an urban setting are effluents from vehicles, emissions from industries and power plants using fossil fuels. They emit large quantities of harmful pollutants—carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, sulphur oxides, nitrogen oxides, particulates, hydrocarbons and photochemical oxidants—in restricted areas, making a significant contribution to local air pollution levels. Other sources of pollution are municipal and agricultural waste sites, brick fields, foundries, metal smelters and waste incineration facilities. Refineries, which emit several pollutants, also make a huge impact on the quality of air. All these pollutants are precursors to the formation of smog, a term coined to describe a mixture of smoke and fog. It is the worst form of air pollution.

Smog is produced through a complex set of photochemical reactions involving the above-mentioned pollutants. They react in the presence of sunlight to produce a witch’s brew of virulent chemicals. Among some of the worst are formaldehyde, peroxyacyl nitrate (PAN) and acrolein. Furthermore, ozone is formed at the ground-level through chemical reactions involving unburned hydrocarbons in gasoline, volatile organic compounds, various oxides of nitrogen and sunlight. Problematic ozone levels occur often on hot summer afternoons when there is little wind and temperatures soar above 30 degrees Celsius. The net result is a brownish orange shroud called photochemical smog, occurring more frequently in large cities with high rise buildings where there is less air circulation and more accumulation of pollutants in the lower atmosphere.

To make a bad situation worse, smog remains under siege for days if it is accompanied by temperature inversion, a phenomenon where air temperature increases with altitude instead of decreasing, resulting in a warm-air lid over cooler air anywhere from ground level up to few thousands of feet into the atmosphere. In an area experiencing inversion, the warm-air lid prevents ground-level air from rising. Consequently, pollutants in the cool, stable and quiescent ground air become trapped below the warm layer of air, creating dirty air with dangerous concentrations of noxious pollutants.

The pollutants in the air do not respect international borders and are carried by wind to faraway places. Hence, anthropogenic air pollution is a global environmental problem instead of regional or local, continuous rather than episodic.

A measure of outdoor air pollution is the Air Quality Index, or AQI, a yardstick that runs from 0 to 500. It rates air conditions across a city/country based on concentrations of five major pollutants: ground-level ozone, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide. The higher the AQI value, the greater the level of air pollution and the greater the health concern. An AQI of 50 represents good air quality with little potential to affect public health. When AQI is above 100, air quality is considered to be unhealthy, at first for certain sensitive groups of people—sick, elderly and children, and then for everyone as AQI gets higher. If the AQI is greater than 200, the air is considered hazardous for the entire population.

Dhaka has the dubious distinction of being one of the 10 most polluted cities in the world, with AQI invariably close to 200. Arguably, these cities are often labelled as “hell with the lid off.” According to The Health Effects Institutes’ State of Global Air Survey, the entire population of Bangladesh has been consistently exposed to unhealthy levels of pollutants in the air since 1990.

Over the past few decades, researchers have unearthed a wide array of health effects which are caused by exposure to air pollution, particularly smog and ozone. Among them are respiratory diseases—asthma, emphysema, coughing, shortness of breath, changes in lung function and lung cancer. Children are at a greater risk of damage to lungs because their respiratory systems are still in the developmental stage. Cardiovascular diseases, immune system impairment, adverse pregnancy outcomes such as preterm birth and significant decrease in life expectancy are other health-related effects of air pollution.

Human body has very little defence against the injurious effects—burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat, irritation of the skin and nasal passages—of the three pernicious constituents of smog—formaldehyde, PANs and acrolein.

Most fuel contain some toxic mineral contaminants, such as lead and mercury, both highly potent neurotoxin. These non-combustible contaminants may be carried off by hot combustion gases, escaping into the air as particulates. Exposure to these deadly particulates have serious health-related consequences too, primarily neurological disorder, severe disability and muscular tremor.

The effects of human-caused air pollution are not limited to people. Acid rain, for example, is formed when emissions of sulphur dioxide and nitrous oxide combine with moisture in the air to create sulfuric and nitric acidic precipitation, thereby acidifying lakes with detrimental effects on aquatic biome. It can also cause structural damage to buildings and monuments, especially those made of limestone or marble, as well as destroy plants and crops.

Indoor pollution can be worse than outdoors pollution in some cases. Air pollution inside buildings is accelerated by the toxicity of materials like asbestos, radon, pesticides and tobacco smoke, mildew, mould, mites, dust and pet dander, together with poor ventilation and humidity. Appliances that produce combustion fumes, especially cooking stoves and water heaters, emit carbon monoxide.

Most indoor pollutants, except carbon monoxide, asbestos and radon, are responsible for irritating but non-lethal allergic reactions. Prolonged exposure to air with high levels of carbon monoxide could be lethal, while radon and asbestos can cause lung cancer.

While there is currently no proven link between air pollution and Coronavirus (COVID-19) mortality, one peer-reviewed study into the 2003 SARS outbreak showed that patients in regions with moderate air pollution levels were 80-85 percent more likely to die than those in regions with low air pollution. COVID-19 is similar to SARS and can cause respiratory failure in severe cases.

Satellite images from NASA show a surprising effect of COVID-19 outbreak in China: reduction in air pollution. A “significant decrease” in pollution over Wuhan and the rest of China is attributed in part to an “economic slowdown” resulting from the virus outbreak.

An unexpected consequence of air pollution could be cooling the climate by offsetting some of the global warming that has occurred so far. That is because certain aerosols—sulphate, for instance—can reflect part of the sunlight back into space before it reaches the Earth’s surface. Call it unwittingly geoengineering the climate. Nevertheless, even if pollutants reduce global warming, it is not desirable to have them in our lungs.

Finally, because of the vastness of the atmosphere, we felt that it could absorb any conceivable amount of abuse by us. We have, therefore, used the air, and in turn our lungs, as a receptacle for hundreds of noxious pollutants. But with clean air technologies, targeted regulations, effective laws and strict emission standards, it is still possible to go far enough back in time to a period when the air was relatively pure.

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