Centralized Policies, Delayed Actions and a Pandemic
As months pass by since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, slowly but surely, the world is learning that this is not solely a healthcare crisis. The crisis has cast doubt on the priorities of governments vis-à-vis an unseen enemy. An enemy which has brought to the fore the dissimilarities in the actions of different polities all over the world in facing the challenge. While some countries adopted prompt preventive and mitigative measures to flatten the endemic curve, others failed to act timely. There was enough time to learn from experiences of the very first epicenters of the disease, thereby botching the task of containing the outbreak. Interestingly enough, we cannot categorize these responses into the binary of developed and developing nations, or else the United States would be a striking outlier. However, an amalgamation of factors such as leadership, governance, and public actions can provide indications to what extent a state fails or succeeds in facing public health crisis of such proportion. This article, thus, examines the politics of countering COVID-19, in an attempt to ensconce linkages between regimes, governments and policy response in a time of pandemic. The key argument here is not to establish a correlation between authoritarian states and failure in responding to the pandemic, rather to explore centralized actions or policies adopted by state mechanisms (regardless of the type of regime), which prove to be detrimental to an effective response. This relationship is analyzed here using the case of the democratic republic of Bangladesh and through three points of contentions: transparency and information, red-tapism, and freedom of press.
Information and Transparency
For decision making, both at the state and individual level, reliable information becomes a sine qua non. When facing a virus from which protecting oneself and the community becomes an obligation, not knowing the reality of the situation due to authoritarian controlling of crucial information, is dangerous. The Chinese government has been criticized for withholding information on the outbreak of the disease at the initial stage and expending time which could have been otherwise used to aware the public of the impending crisis. Although China with such restrictive policies could concoct a timely crisis management response, the same cannot be said for its partner in development, Bangladesh. The latter has a far weaker public health infrastructure and taskforce to initiate a congruent response.
In Bangladesh, when the first cases of the disease were confirmed earlier in March, the severity of the situation was denied by key actors in the government. Moreover, it was only after a month that the health ministry confirmed community transmission of the disease when 182 new cases were reported in a day. In addition, the source of a case where a patient died could not be traced. Although there were speculations about community spread of the disease even before this announcement, no clear information was provided from the state officials. Prominent experts, virologists and even citizens of the country voiced their concern over incomplete information purveyed in the news bulletins. While decision makers may have their own rationale to avert unnecessary panic, they did lose valuable time and also dispossess the people of the scope to protect themselves and adopt preventive measures at an individual scale. At the same time, in Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel made a blunt prediction about the possibility of 70 per cent of the population in her country getting affected and the need to ‘win time’. In such situation one could only wonder if reliable, complete information backed by science was readily available to the Bangladeshi population, would the people be more sincere about maintaining health guidelines and lockdown measures to contain the spread? At the same time, would the decision-makers be better informed if the bottom-up chain of information were more transparent?
One common element of most centralized systems of governance is bureaucratic inertia. A crisis of this magnitude requires collaborative public-private partnerships in order to cultivate best results. Restrictive regulatory bodies and incessant formalities do not only inhibit progress but also decapacitate decision-makers at the top tier of governance from taking the right and opportune decision. It must be acknowledged that many developed countries have struggled in making the right decisions at the right time. In Germany, despite the fact that emergency plans for a pandemic exist, there weren’t sufficient provisions for protective gear for the medical staff. However, the German government did act promptly along with the private sector to start mass testing for the virus and to get expeditious approval of the WHO. In Korea, thanks to public-private partnerships, quick testing and tracing were also made possible.
At the initial stage of the outbreak, Bangladesh lagged in testing as much as possible due to the restrictions imposed by the Directorate General of Health Services on testing of the virus by private hospitals and laboratories, on grounds that the profit-driven private sector may take advantage of this situation. In doing so, the government only made their duties onerous, exceeding their own capacities and failing to deliver. While its neighbor, India, opted for streamlined private partnerships at an early stage, Bangladesh did so when the public bodies were overwhelmed.
A renowned health center of the country, Gonoshasthaya Kendra (GK) developed their own testing kit at an affordable price but the process of testing samples was inessentially delayed in the name of formalities. This isn’t a unique scenario, because historically, in the time of crisis, governments tend to take centralized decisions. However, pandemic or not, centralization leads to lengthy decision-making, where information is filtered as it reaches from bottom to top of the pyramid, resulting in misinformed or faulty decisions. This could be avoided if governments are ready to welcome alternate views and opinions of subject matter specialists from all sectors. At a time of pandemic this does not only ensure decisions based on scientific evidence, but also strengthens the check and balance mechanism.
The Bangladesh government has initiated donation drives to help support the poor and the ultra-poor. Simultaneously, a stimulus package has been set up to overcome economic losses faced by local and export-oriented sectors which bore the brunt of the pandemic. However, in a strictly centralized system, transparency remains a key issue. Even when actions are decentralized and responsibilities are thrust upon district level government actors, who will ensure that the benefits reach the targeted beneficiaries? The Prime Minister made an open statement about strict measures to be taken for those misappropriating the package. In order to unveil how the government support is being implemented in reality, the mass media and the public must have access to this information.
Freedom of Press
In terms of free flow of information, the pandemic saw a rise in dictatorial response from several countries. In Europe, the Hungarian government granted itself more power in the face of the pandemic. New laws have been rapidly enacted which jeopardize the freedom of press by stipulating criminal punishments for publishing news that the public regulatory bodies deem false. In like manner, stringent measures have been taken in Bangladesh against those who voiced concern or overtly criticized the government’s response to Covid-19. Speaking of fractures in the response mechanism could be labeled as misinformation under the country’s Digital Security Act, 2018 resulting in imprisonment. An official circular has been published which prohibits government employees from furnishing any news or content that defames the government. While it is undeniable that fake news is a threat to public order and may give rise to panic, there still remains a fine line between fighting misinformation and encroaching on freedom of press and expression. In order to facilitate a smooth and effective implementation of the financial stimulus package, the central government must remain informed of activities at lower and decentralized levels of governance, for which freedom of press becomes imperative. Banks will become key actors in disbursing loans to beneficiaries and any discrepancies must be called out on. As for the role of journalists, in this time of pandemic, they must also ask macro questions related to national budget allocation and sector prioritization.
Authoritarian regimes may be in some cases synonymous to effective states but, clearly in facing the pandemic, highly centralized actions have proven to delay much needed action. One must acknowledge that within its economic and infrastructural limitations, the Bangladesh government has taken prompt lockdown measures and over time increased capacities of the health care system. However, much of the social support and safety net were initiated by private sectors and humanitarian organizations. Less bureaucracy and more private-public partnerships at the crucial stage of the outbreak may have changed the scores for the country. It is too early to predict how the remainder of the response unfolds, but with the new technologies of tracing the spread of Covid-19, we must make sure that individual freedom and privacy do not take a backseat.
Salwa Jahan manages the European Commission’s project on Fostering Responsible Digital Citizenship to Promote Freedom of Expression in Bangladesh. She pursued a bachelor in political science from the University of Panthéon Sorbonne in Paris, and a postgraduate degree in global politics jointly from the University of Helsinki and University of Panthéon-Sorbonne, with a focus on international development and humanitarian assistance. She has experience working with human rights organization, in the area of research, grants and project development.