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Commentary: Reopening of markets shrouded in ambiguity and insecurity

Published : Tuesday, 12 May, 2020 at 12:00 AM  Count : 492
Observer Special

Customers flock to a shop at Eliphant Road in the capital ahead of Eid ignoring physical distancing amid the Covid-19 pandemic on Monday.	PHOTO: OBSERVER

Customers flock to a shop at Eliphant Road in the capital ahead of Eid ignoring physical distancing amid the Covid-19 pandemic on Monday. PHOTO: OBSERVER

While the government has decided to reopen markets and shopping malls at a limited scale before Eid, during Covid-19 pandemic, it is yet to remove a number of self-conflicting barriers from its earlier and present statements. On May 4, the government decided to reopen shops and markets to resume trading from May 10 during Ramadan and Eid. Following the announcement, it was expected that most shop and market owners would reopen but in reality most owners in Dhaka and Chattogram cities as well as other parts in the country have decided to keep their shops,  malls and businesses closed as the number of Covid-19 cases keeps surging in the country following the reopening of the garment factories.

The decision to open the garment factories, shops and malls has been taken at a time when the Health Minister and the National Committee on Covid-19 have publicly warned that this will  pose risk of
community transmission of the virus. Their warnning proved true as on Monday (yesterday) the infection crossed 1000 in one day.

Top leaders of Dokan Malik Samity, a platform of shop owners, in Dhaka said the decision not to reopen fully was made as an untoward situation could arise when shop employees, as instructed by law enforcement authorities, would force shoppers to follow health guidelines. Moreover, they fear there will be lackluster sales which will cause them loss by keeping their shops and malls open during this pandemic.

It is praise worthy to note that at the end of the day, good and logical senses have prevailed over our shopping mall and market owners. They have prioritised health and safety issue over profit making. Additionally, the business owners have also managed to look deeper inside the transmittable aspects of the Coronavirus. The collective decision not to reopen their shops and markets will do good in the short and long run. Nevertheless, pacing fast towards gradual reopening of the country, a number of announcements and declarations have shrouded the reopening strategies in a massive confusion.

First, when the announcement came to reopen shops and malls in a limited scale, it sounded vague and confusing. Opening hours could be curtailed but it was not possible to control and manage crowds. Crowds here do not follow rules and discipline of maintaining health regulations and social distancing especially during Eid Shopping. Second, most of our shops being small in size are incapable to accommodate large crowds and it is not possible to prevent a potential virus spread with mere masks and hand sanitizers without ensuring physical distancing of consumers. Third, the decision to reopen markets and malls came at a time when the infection rate is surging by the hundreds and the death figure is also increasing every day. Fourth, our shops and market owners seem to have been acting more responsibly, cautiously  and pragmatically following a clear-cut crisis time business policy.

The point, however, we mark a set of clear contradictory and opposing stances on the reopening issue from the government's end. In fact the contradiction had begun earlier with the term "General Holiday". The government should have taken a step further and announced the extended few weeks as a "lockdown"- instead of a "general holiday". Using the latter term is bound to give the wrong impression, as we have seen from the crowds who left the cities to go home as soon as it was announced. Additionally, the general public would have come out in the open relatively less had the closure been defined as lockdown. Crowd management would have been easier. There is also a contradiction when the government declared 'general holiday' the district administrations have imposed 'lockdown' in phases in their districts on the basis of the risks of spreading the virus.

Given the type of shutdown imposed in Bangladesh, it has become difficult to distinguish between - lockdown, shutdown, partial-lockdown and general holiday. The same confusion is now occurring with the reopening issue. It has become a big  confusion to differentiate between - limited scale reopening, partial reopening and controlled reopening based on heath guidelines.  The government authorities must clarify all these prevailing confusions, so that the general public are not mislead and puzzled.  

There is a noticeable lack of clarity and precision regarding government announcements and declarations, and we expect our both ruling party politicians and opposition parties to be more simplistic and logical with their thoughts and words in this time of national crisis. Adding humour to confusion, Awami League General Secretary and Transport Minister Obaidul Quader on Saturday urged his party leaders and activists to stand by the poor and destitutes with the money they are supposed to spend for shopping in the upcoming Eid festival.

Why targeting only party leaders and followers, the ruling party General Secretary could have made this open appeal to the general people of the country? Though a caring and sincere call, but the call is void of smart and intelligent thinking. If the people are urged to avoid Eid shopping then why the decision was taken to open shops and malls before Eid posing risk of community transmission?
He also urged affluent people to 'keep patience and be economic in Eid shopping' this year, being imbued with the spirit of sacrifice. Perhaps many will adhere to his call, but he would have done even a better job - if he could have engaged his party leaders and followers to volunteer to ensure social distancing by helping the police and army.

Almost every country in the world has proceeded with a crisis time planning to combat the spreading of the Coronavirus. Some Western countries have even advanced with a wartime footing. Their policies and announcements have been clear, simple and practical keeping in mind the reality.
We should not keep swimming in the pool of confusing and self- conflicting remarks and suffer from complacency. Not to forget , the peak timing of the COVID- 19 onslaught is yet to strike us by any time this or next month. Keeping the worst case scenario in mind, the government must resort to firm and effective standpoints and stop lurking in the whirlpool of confusion, ambiguity and self - conflicting strategies and planning. The most important things are the hardest to say, simultaneously also very easy to confuse others with the wrong understanding of reality.

As Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina is regularly and sincerely planning steps both to save life from the virus and to keep the economy out of the coronavirus fallout the concerned government administrations should make policies taking into consideration both life and living. Any lack of coordination and whimsical decision may lead the country to more risks and the nation will have to pay costly price.

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