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

An Open Letter to Humans from COVID-19

The COVID-19, a strain of coronavirus, sends an open letter to Humans on the occasion of Christmas 2020:

COVID-19

Dear Humans,

I am totally astounded and flabbergasted by the audacity you have displayed so far to my strength and ferocity. I may be small, a very small strain of coronavirus, but I am not weak. About a year and half ago, I evolved in your planet in the most populous nation on Earth. I thought I would have a fun time jumping from one to the other of 1200 million of your species. But Chinese government reacted very promptly, to my utter disgust, forcing me to stay within the confines of only 10 million or so Chinese. I will never forget or forgive the Chinese.

You know that I am a virus and hence I cannot live on my own. I need a body, preferably, a sick human body – a body with underlying problems like respiratory illness, diabetes, weak hearts having transplanted or bypassed, kidney problem, dementia and a lot of other problems, as my host. I do not want to go to anybody who is not prepared to be my host. After all, who does not like an easy prey, an easy meal? I hate going to a strong healthy body and fight it out with his or her body protection system.

You call your body protection or defence system an immune system. There is nothing immune from my attack. I am smaller than the smallest of a bacterium. You cannot normally see me or detect me unless you take me to an electron microscope. Even then, you have to be very careful detecting and photographing me. You take the shot from a wrong angle and you miss the point.

As I said, I need a host. I am not even alive on my own; unless I find a live cell in a live body like yours as my host within few hours, I would die. Once I get a host, I seek out the weak organ or tissue where I will have an easy task. First, I go to an organ of your body as an innocent bystander, observe how strong your organ is and how efficiently it is functioning. If the organ I am in is very efficient, then I tend to slip away to another organ. After all, I don’t want to sacrifice my life fighting a losing battle with a strong organ, whereas I could have a very comfortable life in another organ where I can flourish, multiply and even take over the whole organ!

When I multiply in an organ or capture the whole organ, I do not want to rest on my laurel. I want to go from your body to another body and keep capturing bodies. I use your cells as my hosts, your body as my survival machine. Before I make you inert (you know what I mean), I want to send some of us to some other human beings. I make you sneeze, make you cough, touch mucous membrane with your hands and pass it on to another person. I need your helping hand, literally. In fact, the more the merrier.

I hear that you have invented a vaccine against me, you want to kill me. It is then going to be an all-out war with me. I have lots of tricks up my sleeve – actually, up my spike to be precise. You think you can catch me by my spike, sort of catch a bull by the horn? No way. I will change my morphology such that as soon as you plan to bolt on to my structure, I will metamorphose to something else. Actually, I do not like the word metamorphose, as if I am doing a literary piece of work, I call it mutate. I mutate, I make your body cells mutate until those cells fail to function.

Mutation is the word I like most. As soon as you make something to catch me, you would find me that I have changed, I have mutated. It’s a cat and mouse game. And then you start the whole process all over again, back to square one. It goes on and on.

In all of this battle of wits, you forgot that I and my cousin called bacterium were the seed corns from which you were made. From the single cell bacteria to multicell bacteria and then to complex bacteria with RNA, DNA and mitochondria, that is how you came into being. Don’t forget all that of your past.

During the long evolutionary period of nearly four billion years, my cousin bacterium had done tremendous amount of work for you. You, all types of animals from antelopes to zebras, plants, fungi and algae were all made from innocent bacteria. My role was to terminate any unworthy species. Your fellow man, a very clever guy called Charles Darwin, very succinctly said, “struggle for existence and survival of the fittest.” I make that struggle as hard as possible and so don’t underestimate me.

May I remind you that during the last 450 million years when conditions on Earth were getting progressively favourable to you, as many as five times, 70 to 75% of all species of all living animals and plants had been wiped out. In addition, about 250 million years ago, nearly 99% of all life forms on Earth were obliterated. It was nearly going to start from a blank slate again. About 65 million years ago, dinosaurs were wiped out completely and that created conditions for life forms for you to evolve.

Life on Earth is a perpetual struggle. I quote again, Charles Darwin’s dictum, “struggle for existence and survival of the fittest” and this struggle and survival come from evolutionary process. If you, the human beings, think that you are clever enough and smart enough to override the evolutionary process, then you better think again.

One last point I would raise is that do not, not even in your dream, think that you are going to live on this Earth for ever. Since the dawn of life (any life) about 400 million years ago, 99% of all life forms have gone extinct. You came to Earth evolving from chimpanzee about 4 million years ago, less than 1.8 million years ago as Homo erectus or only about 200,000 years ago as Homo sapiens.  A species on Earth lives, on the average, 4 million years and so your time is very much nearer the end. You had been destroying the fabric of Earth, massacring the environment, causing extinction to many species. Probably you had been creating conditions for your own demise. SO BE WARNED!

On behalf of COVID-19   

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

Cultural, Economic, Environmental, Human Rights, International, Political, Technical

America at the cliff edge

Why the fate of the American Republic – and the world – could depend on what happens on November 3, 2020.

The survival of the American Republic is at cliff edge now, given the perspective of 244 years of American history. There was the close election of 1800 between Aaron Burr—an unprincipled fellow with dictatorial impulses who was in many ways the Donald Trump of his day—and Thomas Jefferson. The 1860 contest in which Abraham Lincoln faced off against Stephen Douglas, with the Civil War looming. Or the 1932 election during the Great Depression, the stakes of which were so consequential that when Franklin D. Roosevelt (FDR) was warned he might be known as the worst president in U.S. history, if his recovery program failed, FDR reportedly replied, “If it fails, I’ll be the last one.”

An extraordinary consensus exists among historians, political scientists, diplomats, national security officials, and other experts that the stakes of the U.S. presidential election between President Donald Trump and Democratic candidate Joe Biden this November rise to these portentous historical standards. Indeed, the stakes may go well beyond that, considering the central place the United States holds today in the global system—in a way it did not as a much younger nation in 1800, 1860, or even 1932.

Some suggest that Trump and the malign forces he has summoned up have already done so much damage to the institutions of U.S. democracy—especially his failure to contain the COVID-19 pandemic and his open encouragement of racial violence and national division—that his re-election in November could damage forever the 244-year-old American experiment of a republic of laws. After a first term in which Trump has openly defied Congress and the courts, twisted foreign policy to serve his political interests, dismissed electoral norms, and turned a terrified Republican Party into his poodle, his return to power would, in effect, legitimize the gutting of the institutions of law and what remains of the founders’ checks and balances. Re-election would vindicate his view that as president he can, as Trump himself said, “do whatever I want.” It would all but destroy the American conceit that the United States is a different kind of democracy, leaving the country as just another abject discard on the ash heap of failed republics going back to ancient Rome and Greece.

The concern is shared by many Republicans—former senior officials who worked for previous Republican administrations stretching back to Ronald Reagan, including several who worked for Trump himself. Some have openly warned that a second Trump term represents an existential threat to American democracy.

“This is a kind of fulcrum moment,” said Edward J. Watts, a University of California, San Diego historian and the author of Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell into Tyranny. “If Trump is re-elected, then I think the norms and restraints of American democracy disappear completely,” in ways that echo what went awry in past republics. Even if Biden wins, Watts added, U.S. recovery will be a long time coming.

“There’s no question in my mind that it’s the most important election in American history. The stakes are just enormous,” said Charles Kupchan, a Georgetown University political scientist, former diplomat, and the author of Isolationism: A History of America’s Efforts to Shield Itself From the World. “One term is bad enough, but if Trump is re-elected, Americans and people around the world would no longer be able to say the American electorate made a mistake. Instead it would be an affirmation this is the direction Americans want to go.”

Kupchan said the reason this contest is more consequential than those critical elections in 1800 and 1860 is that “the United States was not the most powerful country in the world during those times.

“Basically, we stayed out of other people’s hair then. That’s not the case today, when you have a country this big that has so profoundly lost its way. We are entering an unforgiving period in history. The balance of power is changing. During the era of post-Cold War unipolarity, the system was more forgiving. Even during the Cold War, when the U.S. made a mistake here and there, like Vietnam, it didn’t knock the world off kilter. But at a moment when the West has lost its material preponderance [to China and Asia] at the same time as it’s begun to stumble politically, that’s a double whammy of historic proportions.”

Indeed, because the United States occupies such a central place in stabilizing the global system, the election of 2020 could be compared to other important global realignments that transformed the fates of previous great powers, empires, and diplomatic constructs of international stability.

“Internationally, it is a world-historical moment—America’s role in the world, and the organization of the global system, is also on the ballot,” said John Ikenberry of Princeton University, the author of A World Safe for Democracy, a book chronicling two centuries of liberal internationalism. “If Trump wins, the whole post war liberal order continues to unravel, and democratic and other allies of the U.S., who are hedging and hoping that the U.S. will return to playing a ‘system role,’ will start making other plans.”

Harvard University’s Joseph Nye, also one of the leading political scientists and diplomats of his day, agrees. In an interview, Nye quoted a leading diplomat from an allied European nation as telling him recently: “We can hold our breath for four years. Eight years is too much.”

According to former U.S. Ambassador to NATO, Ivo Daalder, if Trump is re-elected or manages to seize power by contesting the election—he is already accusing Democrats of fraud and in late September refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power—it would be tantamount to a formal divorce from Europe and the West. It would mean that “the way Americans view themselves has become completely alien to what used to be the European view of America.” For four years, Trump has derided long-standing European allies and recently, in a fit of pique, announced he was withdrawing thousands of U.S. troops from Germany. The U.S. government’s inept response to the COVID-19 pandemic has only solidified this sense of alienation and frank disgust, Daalder said.

(In August, a special report from FP Analytics ranked the United States 31st out of 36 countries for its response to the coronavirus pandemic, coming in below Brazil, Ethiopia, India, and Russia. The report found that the United States ranked so poorly because of the Federal Government’s inability to mount an appropriate scientific response; inadequate emergency health care spending; insufficient testing and hospital beds; and limited debt relief.)

So abysmal has been the country’s performance under Trump that the Irish Times columnist Fintan O’Toole wrote in April that for the first time the United States is provoking pity from the rest of the world, which sent disaster relief to Washington rather than the other way around.

“What happened during COVID-19 represents the pinnacle to this disgust,” Daalder said. “The COVID response shows so clearly the deep problems with the American system—with our health care infrastructure, the income inequality and racial problems that persist. America has become something to be looked down at.”

The best hope, many pundits and scholars say, is that Trump is soundly defeated in November and accepts that outcome, even though he has suggested he won’t. Eventually he comes to be seen by the world—and by history—as a strange aberration, a one-of-a-kind oddity whose jingoism, narcissism, and incompetence are unlikely to come along again, whether in a Republican or Democratic president. The United States then re-joins the global system—with its usual blend of nativist reluctance and exceptional arrogance, yes, but on a more moderate (or, to be precise, adult) level than during the Trump era.

Under this scenario, a newly inaugurated President Biden, who is a deeply experienced internationalist committed to U.S. alliances, and his multicultural vice president, Kamala Harris, act swiftly to restore U.S. prestige by reversing Trump’s worst failures on COVID-19, political polarization, the economy, global stability, and climate change, as Biden has promised to do. Pointing out that Trump has failed to replace the many international agreements he has torn up, Biden would immediately rejoin and work to shore up the Iran nuclear deal and the Paris agreement on climate change, which he helped champion as Barack Obama’s vice president (and which the United States is scheduled to complete its withdrawal from on Nov. 4, one day after the election). Going by his campaign promises, he will try to revive the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty that Trump has discarded and begin talks to extend the Obama-era New START nuclear reduction pact (which would expire only a few weeks into his term, though even now Trump is seeking to blow it up).

Biden would also likely seek to restore something like the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), the most comprehensive trade deal in history (which has been kept breathing in reduced form by Japan, the United States’ closest ally in Asia, since Trump pulled out of that accord as well). Because the TPP was designed to exclude and pressure Beijing into accepting fair-and-open trade norms, Biden could thereby do far more than Trump has done to confront a rising China and continue to co-opt it into the global system. Meanwhile a paralyzed and polarized Congress—so traumatized by Trumpian divisions, investigations, and impeachment for the past four years—starts working more effectively again (especially if Democrats win the Senate as well as the House, ending the legislative stalemate).

But even in this scenario it’s hard to imagine that things go back to the way they were pre-Trump. Biden, for example, will find it difficult to simply resurrect the INF Treaty and TPP, in part because he must accommodate the powerful progressive wing in his own party, which rejects untrammelled free trade pacts and over commitment to a U.S. military presence overseas. Biden has already said he would not simply re-join the TPP as it existed, for example, but would seek to renegotiate it to include “strong rules of origin” requiring more manufacturing in the United States and has also said, before entering any new international trade deal, he would focus on a Trump-like $400 billion “Buy America” initiative to boost domestic product. Support for the World Trade Organization, which was initiated by Democrats under President Bill Clinton, is fast waning inside the party as well, amid Trump’s accusations that China has unfairly abused its rules to rob middle-class Americans of their jobs. And Biden, like Trump, has been seeking to pare down the United States’ role overseas for years; even as Obama’s vice president, he argued vociferously against a U.S. buildup in Afghanistan and negotiated an accelerated withdrawal from Iraq.

Indeed, perhaps the greater threat is that the stakes of this election are not quite as momentous as optimists hope—and that Trump, even if he loses power, proves to be less an aberration and more a symptom of a country that is no longer functioning well, whether as a republic or a global stabilizer, and can’t be fully trusted again.

After all, Trump’s neo-isolationism didn’t spring from nowhere; it had a lot of popular support and still does. In his new book, Kupchan argues that America’s embrace of internationalism is more an aberration than the norm in U.S. history—and he says that even for the prospective president Biden and subsequent U.S. leaders, “it’s not going to be back to the old foreign policy. We’re not going back to the institutionalized, treaty-based system that emerged after World War II. The votes in the Senate won’t be there.” To that point, a survey by the Chicago Council on Global Affairs released in September shows an unprecedented breakdown in the old consensus in support of Washington’s role, demonstrating the “Trumpification” of the Republican Party, in Daalder’s words.

Perhaps the greatest fear among U.S. allies is that the American republic may simply be caught up in an inevitable cycle of history by which great powers grow complacent and decadent and eventually collapse or wither away. Prominent realist thinkers such as John Mearsheimer have long argued that American-style liberal internationalism contains the seeds of its own destruction – excessive ambition and overreach. “Liberalism has an activist mentality woven into its core,” Mearsheimer has written. “The belief that all humans have a set of inalienable rights, that protecting these rights should override other [domestic] concerns, creates a powerful incentive for liberal states to intervene” abroad.

In recent decades, both Republican and Democratic presidents gave in to this impulse to differing degrees—from Vietnam to Bosnia to Iraq. And in 2016, Trump realized, as his Democratic challenger Hillary Clinton did not, that many Americans had grown weary of being global caretakers when so much was going awry at home, especially the decimation of the middle class under the aegis of rapid globalization. Biden is unlikely to make the same mistake.

Thus, in the perverse way Trump has been channelling the deepest of U.S. traditions and the fears of America’s founders, who were always worried about overreach in foreign conflict and constantly warned against its self-destructive effects, including the rise of demagogues like Trump. Most famously, John Quincy Adams said in 1821 that America must not go “in search of monsters to destroy” abroad; to do so, Adams said, would corrupt the very character of the nation: “The fundamental maxims of her policy would insensibly change from liberty to force.” In the spring of 2016, a senior Trump campaign advisor said that Trump’s first major foreign-policy speech—in which he declared that “the world must know we do not go abroad in search of enemies”—was intended as a conscious echo of Adams and a rebuke to his predecessors and their reckless interventions in Iraq and Libya.

(A modified version of the FP article by Michael Hirsh on September 25, 2020)

–           Dr A Rahman is an author and a columnist.

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.

Environmental, Human Rights, International, Life as it is, Political

Racism in America: Police chokehold is not the issue (Part II)

(Following the previous post which constituted the initial section of the article, the present post is the concluding section of the article).

According to the Sentencing Project’s Report to the UN in 2018, Blacks are three times more likely to be searched, twice as likely to be arrested, and receive longer prison sentences for committing the same crime. Thirty-five percent of all executions in the US have been Black; they constitute 34 percent of prison inmates and 42 percent of people on death row.

However, while police brutality and related injustices are obvious, the most overwhelming burden for Blacks is the political disempowerment and economic inequities which they have to bear.

Blacks are approximately 13 percent of the population. But currently, while their presence in the House is roughly equivalent (52 out of 435), they have only three Senators (the highest ever), and no Governors. Of the 189 American Ambassadors, only three are Black, usually in “hardship posts” or less relevant assignments (like Bangladesh?).

According to Valerie Wilson from the Economic Policy Institute, in 2018, a median Black worker only earned about 75 percent of what a White person does (USD 14.92 per hour to USD 19.79), and The Economist reported that in 2019 mean household wealth was USD 138,000 for Blacks, and USD 933,700 for Whites. While more than 72 percent of Whites own homes usually in nice neighbourhoods, only 42 percent of Blacks do so usually in shabbier environments. Unemployment rates are typically twice that of Whites. 

Approximately 23 percent of Covid-19 patients are Black, and similar discrepancies are seen in terms of people suffering from blood pressure, diabetes, obesity, asthma, cancer, and other health challenges.   

Educational disparities are pronounced. According to the National Center for Educational Statistics, while almost 80 percent of Whites graduate from high school, only 62 percent of Blacks do so. While 29 percent of White males and 38 percent of White females graduate from college, only 15 percent of Black males and 22 percent of Black females do the same. 

This is not because of innate intellectual differences traditionally used to explain the “achievement gap” (comparative lower scores in reading and math for Black students). As John Valant pointed out, Black performance in standardised tests has much more to do with exclusionary zoning policies that keep Black families from better school districts, mass incarceration practices that remove Black parents from children, and under-resourced Black school districts that impose relatively poor-quality teachers, weak supportive infrastructure and an environment of hopelessness and despair that students are compelled to endure. Expecting these kids to perform at the same level as others is like tying a weight to their legs and hoping that they can be competitive in a marathon.

President Johnson’s effort to “level the playing field” led to some Affirmative Action policies, and the formation of the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission in 1965, to provide historically disadvantaged groups some extra educational and economic opportunities. Some progress has certainly been made. A small Black middle class of professionals has gradually come into existence, some Black entrepreneurs have been notably prosperous, and a few Black performers have gained spectacular success in the entertainment and sports industries (unrelated to affirmative action).

But, on the other hand, many Whites resented these programmes which were gradually challenged, and in some ways gutted, through charges of “reverse discrimination” (Bakke v Board of Regents University of California, 1978). The sentiment was that these policies unfairly violated a merit-based system of rewards, and created an entitlement culture for undeserving Blacks (conveniently forgetting that Whites had gained from it for centuries). Sometimes affirmative action only meant incorporating a few Blacks in various positions to prove an institution’s quantitative adherence to EEOC requirements. It was tokenist, grudging and alienating. Instead of bridging racial divides, they deepened them.

Ay, and there is the rub, as Shakespeare would say. The issue of racism is not about a chokehold of a White police officer, but its stranglehold on US society. It is ingrained in the predatory capitalism that the US worships with its emphasis on ugly materialism over human development, selfish individualism over collective welfare, desperate profit-seeking over social responsibility, immoral inequalities over a sharing culture, patriarchal dominance over an inclusive democracy, mindless consumerism over ecological concern, and a phenomenally successful strategy of keeping people, particularly the working class, divided and loathing each other.

It is also true that the races are prisoners of their respective assumptions, perceptions and judgments that lead them to see “the other” in radically distorted terms. Their narratives of history, their engagement with reality, and their judgment of events condemn them to their own rhetorical echo-chambers, making communications difficult. What the Blacks will see and remember will be vastly different from what the Whites will (e.g. Blacks will hear George Floyd crying out for his mother as a casually sadistic White officer chokes him to death, Whites will see the looting). In these conditions, hate becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. 

Finally, when racism is reduced, and isolated, to a simple problem (e.g. police brutality), it will let politicians shake their cynical heads and issue condemnations with platitudes and clichés that will come trippingly to their tongues. It will permit them to tinker with this or that aspect of law enforcement and claim to have “fixed it”. It will encourage the power-elite to seek TV-rich moments such as taking a knee, or carrying a BLM placard, or raising a fist at a funeral memorial—high in symbolism but pitifully, perhaps deliberately, low in accomplishment.

As long as they ignore the larger historical, political and psychological context in which White defensiveness and Black weaknesses are located, one can treat the symptoms and not the virus of racism. The intellectual honesty and moral courage this would require has been absent in the past, and there is neither much evidence, nor much hope, that we will see it anytime soon.

Postscript: Having lived in America for many years, I can personally attest to the fairness and decency of the vast majority of colleagues, students, and general people my wife and I have met, and the genuine graciousness and warmth of many friends that we have been blessed to have. This merely underscores the point that the issue is not individual but institutional, not personal but structural.

(The cases mentioned in the article are all Supreme Court cases.)

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

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.