Myanmar and Us
(Series -2, part - 9)
Hail, the Experts!
Abdus's typical government education up to Class 10 left him insisting the Sun orbits the Earth. Online, blindly believing religious pronouncements about Covid-19 eradication, he eschewed any current data trends. Did his family learning in a normal Bangladeshi household be any counterweight to misinformation?
Covid-19 is a coronavirus. A variety of coronaviruses cause the common cold. Many other viruses spread similarly. How did parents, the community, local schoolteachers and the media prior to Covid-19 shape people's present attitudes to viruses?
14-year-old Shipon had a runny nose. I wondered about his understanding of such a trivial ailment. I asked Shipon how he got his cold. He replied that it came from the pond when he had a wash. I said I've washed in a pond and don't have a cold.
Shipon elaborated on how he washed in two ponds. That's why he had a cold. I asked if all his friends who washed in both ponds had a cold. He replied no, but he went into the big pond where there were lots of "garta" (holes), which led to his head being immersed.
Because Shipon firmly believed that bathing in ponds causes colds, his supporting evidence could be any unconnected incidental experience. In fact, most of the rural adults in that area thought a common cold came from washing or bathing in a pond or river.
Trying to reason or educate people to change their medical opinions is often futile as they have their own reasoning to prove they are correct. They tenaciously stick to their beliefs, defying rational arguments, refusing to contemplate other possibilities.
9-year-old Kamran had a cold with a high fever. His two mamis (aunt-in-laws) berated him for washing too often in the pond. Admonishment over, I asked both adults why their toddlers have so many colds, were they being washed too often. The women replied that the babies got dirty in the mud, that's why they have colds.
By implication, scolded Kamran's cold came from dirty water - a reasonable presumption. But their ideas were not open to challenge. Both became stressed and annoyed by my enquiries, by any suggestion of alternative reasons to have influenza-type symptoms.
When I later contracted a cold, I asked the elder mami the reason for my cold considering I had not been washing recently and nor had I been in the mud. She abruptly retorted that it was a cold day.
Although it had been raining, which brought the temperature down to 32°C, I didn't consider this cold. And in 83% humidity, it felt clammy.
Kamran's mami looked annoyed when I said it was not winter; in the winter it is cold. I jokingly suggested her husband - standing nearby - put on a shirt or jacket over his bare top half as it was a 'cold' day. Irked, she told me to do my own work... I left smiling, giving her some paper tissues, saying she will need them for the common cold she was just about to get because of the cold day.
There is widespread belief that too much swimming or the body being exposed to cold temperatures causes a common cold (shordi).
Although Covid-19 has forced the media and medical practitioners to provide more accurate information about viral transmission, it's important to consider what people learnt prior to the pandemic. This is because past learning influences people's present opinions, and the initial political and public reaction to Covid-19.
The ordinary person cannot learn correct medical information if hospitals give inaccurate health statements and newspapers just quote parrot-fashion whatever anyone says. An example of this widespread common tendency occurred in the Country section of the Daily Star newspaper, with the subtitle: 'Diseases Due To Fluctuation In Temperature' (Daily Star, 26 August 2016).
Underneath was a photograph with a caption describing a lone child specialist treating various diseases in Lalmonirhat 'caused by fluctuations in temperature during the last few days'. Who are we to question a child specialist who attributes diseases to temperature fluctuations, especially if reported and endorsed by a reputable newspaper?
The article continued, '...According to the met office the temperature was 37.08 degrees Celsius yesterday noon, while it was 35.2 degrees Celsius on Wednesday. The temperature falls at dawn. Hospital sources said the children are suffering from stomach pain, dysentery, bronchitis, vomiting and diarrhea due to the fluctuation.'
Educated to misunderstand science in primary schools, we have had no experience of gathering our own data for a controlled experiment. We had to memorise mere formulaic tricks in mathematic to show good pass rates, obtained via cheating.
Why should we question the data? We only look at the figures provided. A 1.88 degree difference must be a significant fluctuation in temperature, even though it won't be possible to find a single day in the entire year with a diurnal range of less than 1.88°C. The difference in temperature between the air and water from the tube well, the river, pond, or rain will be very threatening. Unless we keep children away from these dangers, it will cause stomach pain, dysentery, bronchitis, vomiting and diarrhoea.
Who are we to mistrust the Daily Star reporter who didn't do practical science investigations, or go out of the office to feel the outside morning air? Perhaps the reporter didn't realise that the temperature, which may be the coldest near dawn, normally rises at dawn (because of the Sun), not falls at dawn.
Who are we to doubt all the learned people mentioned in the newspaper, such as Dr Hafizur Rahman, the child specialist, or Dr Nuruzzaman Ahmed, superintendent of Lalmonirhat Sadar Hospital? The article didn't mention any of them suggesting the role of viruses, bacteria, protozoa, helminths, poor sanitation and contaminated water as disease factors.
It was a tyranny of misinformation. Assuming the report was an accurate summary of the doctor's opinion, then the correspondent could claim they were following (lemming-like) expert advice. However, there's no excuse to peddle inaccurate information about temperature fluctuations. Is it now surprising how we initially responded to Covid-19?
How might teachers who read this article act? They will teach hundreds upon thousands of students about how temperature fluctuations and 'cold' water create various diseases. One principal told me that ice cream causes colds and coughs. He actively discouraged his primary school students to consume ice cream.
Some doctors, teachers and the media reinforce the perpetuation of cultural myths such as body exposure to 'cold' water causes the common cold. They are the very professions that should instead provide accurate medical information to help educate the public about viral transmission.
This collusion of misinformation is easily explainable through the way schools have educated people to misunderstand science and mathematics as described in Parts 6, 7 and 8. The general public and policy makers of Bangladesh have had little preparation for independent thinking and critical analysis when a novel situation such as Covid-19 surfaces. To be continued...