- Bangladesh In the Shadow of COVID-19 — Carnival of Corruption, Controlling Information, and Coercion
Bangladesh has been experiencing a slow and incremental process of democratic backsliding since 2011, particularly after the one-sided election in 2014. Now it has joined the bandwagon of countries experiencing a dramatic decline in civil rights and freedom of expression in the wake of COVID-19 pandemic. In many countries, under the pretext of public health emergency, new laws have been passed which provide governments with unrestricted powers with little or no accountability. In several countries, governments are cracking down on critical voices. Since early March, the Bangladeshi government has intensified its attacks on dissenting voices through existing legal instruments and extrajudicial measures. With the opposition in disarray, and parliament becoming de-facto one-party affair due to the managed election in 2018, there are no effective accountability mechanisms in place. The pandemic provides a pretext for further restrictions on civil rights, accelerating the backsliding process. Since March, when the first case of infection was identified and the first death was reported in Bangladesh, official intolerance of criticism has intensified, even as the government’s response to the pandemic continues to be haphazard, ill-planned and plagued with corruption. Under the shadow of the pandemic, Bangladeshis are witnessing a carnival of corruption due to the absence of accountability and impunity of the ruling party leaders. They are also seeing the government’s measures to control the flow of information and experiencing the widespread use of coercive measures against its citizens.
Like many other countries, Bangladesh was ill-prepared to handle the pandemic, although leaders of the ruling party underestimated the danger of COVID-19 and claimed that the country was ready. Denial, deliberately limiting the number of tests, uncoordinated responses and complacency marked the responses in March and early April. It soon became evident that the public healthcare system was beginning to fail after years of neglect and corruption. Patients were turned away from hospitals and health workers complained of lack of protective equipment. Half-hearted measures, such as a ‘general holiday’ in place of lockdown, was declared in late March, and the economic impacts of the pandemic, particularly on the poorer segments of the society, began to become obvious.