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Op-Ed: Will coronavirus transform Bangladesh into the next Iran?

Op-Ed:  Will coronavirus transform Bangladesh into the next Iran?

Shipan Kumer Basu, President of the World Hindu Struggle Committee, proclaimed in an interview: “Coronavirus is the latest pandemic that is affecting the international community.  So far, there is no official record on how the coronavirus is affecting the people in Bangladesh.  We believe that 13 Bangladeshis have succumbed to the illness, but the government is not recording these deaths as related to the coronavirus pandemic but rather due to coughing and a cold or a respiratory disease.  The state administration is completely inept in handling the situation.”  These leaves one to ponder, with the time, will Bangladesh become the next Iran?  

According to Human Rights Watch, even after the first person died from coronavirus in Bangladesh, “tens of thousands of people gathered in Raipur in the south of the country in order to pray from the Quran in order to protect them against the pandemic.”  The BBC reported that eyewitnesses reported that up to 30,000 people attended that massive prayer session and a similar massive prayer session in Malaysia caused 500 coronavirus infections.   Interestingly, Basu argued that many religious Muslims in Bangladesh believe that their faith makes them immune from getting the coronavirus, but now many religious Muslims are suffering from the pandemic within the country.  

“While the authorities discouraged mass gatherings, they haven’t offered much else to build up confidence that they are adequately responding to the crisis,” Human Rights Watch added.  “The Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research is currently the only facility with the capacity to run a coronavirus test for a country of more than 164 million.  Testing is only available in the capital city Dhaka, so the thousands who gathered to pray in Raipur for instance cannot be checked for the virus.  There have been reports that the IEDCR’s hotline is not working but meanwhile, some hospitals are apparently refusing treatment to patients displaying symptoms.” 

The Bangladeshi health system is simply not equipped to handle the situation.  As the Andalulou Turkish News Agency noted,  “many have expressed concern that there is a serious lack of Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds with facilities with ventilators, shortage of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health care workers, testing kits and other resources, including a national fund to fight the COVID-19 outbreak.” 

Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury, a Bangladeshi public health activist and founder of Gonoshasthaya Kendra, a rural health care organization with a modern medical facility, proclaimed: “Bangladesh is facing these challenges because of a weak Health Ministry. There is a serious crisis of ICU beds prepared for patients and necessary training and supply of PPE to physicians and health care associates.  If something happens, even one-tenth of what the U.S., Italy, or Spain are facing now in the coronavirus pandemic, then we [Bangladesh] could not deal with such a situation because of insufficient ICU facilities and lacking preparedness in other areas.” 

It is true that Bangladesh recently announced a lockdown.  All Bangladeshis who have recently returned from working in the Persian Gulf are under a 14-day quarantine.  Similarly, all the Rohingya refugee camps have been closed off from the rest of the country.  At the same time, Bangladeshi leader Sheikh Hasina has told her citizens not to leave home unless it is an emergency.  All trains, buses and flights leaving Bangladesh have been suspended until April 4, and the whole country is presently on a national holiday with all the schools and colleges closed, while the government has offered financial relief to the garment industry, which is critical for the Bangladeshi economy yet presently is at risk of collapsing. 

Nevertheless, many critics are pondering whether the Bangladeshi government is a bit late in their response and whether this is enough given that it is one of the more densely populated countries on earth, with a population of 10 million who recently returned to the country after working abroad.   Furthermore, given the nature of Bangladeshi culture, not many Bangladeshis are absorbing the concept of social distancing well.  The Diplomat reported that a large party was held in order to celebrate the release of Bangladeshi Opposition figure Khalida Zia under the supposed Bangladeshi lockdown.  It should also be noted that the Bangladeshi government has hosted events with visitors from abroad during the supposed lockdown as well.  Furthermore, Al Jazeera reported that many Bangladeshis live in crowded urban slums, which makes the task of containing the coronavirus even more difficult.

Even before the Coronavirus pandemic broke out, the Bangladeshi government has been under fire for massive human rights violations.  The US State Department recently reported that the Bangladeshi government systematically murders, imprisons, tortures and rapes political dissidents and members of minority groups.  For example, the US State Department noted that three Bangladeshi soldiers raped a 12-year-old Rohingya girl and photojournalist Shahidul Alam was tortured in prison for “making provocative statements” regarding the student protests.   Similarly, the Bangladeshi Minority Council UK released a reporting demonstrating that Debashish Chakraborty, a failed Bangladeshi Hindu asylum seeker in the UK, was recently killed upon his return to Bangladesh.   Now, there is a fear that things can only get worse.  The discriminatory treatment of the Rohingya has only worsened since the pandemic broke out.  Furthermore, Bangladeshi dissident Aslam Chowdhury was recently re-arrested during the coronavirus pandemic. 

It should be noted that there are some parallels between how Bangladesh and Iran related to the pandemic.  In Iran also, the government tried to hide the outbreak in the beginning and was in denial about its existence.  Initially, the Iranian government refused to quarantine affected areas and Shia holy shrines, believing their faith would protect them from the pandemic, just as many religious Bangladeshis believed Allah would protect them from the virus if they just prayed enough.  

Instead, the Iranian government helped to spread the virus all over the world.  MEMRI reported that the Syrian Opposition blames Iran for the spread of the coronavirus into Syria.  Iraqi dissident Nakeeb Saadoon similarly blames Iran for the pandemic spreading into Iraq.  Foreign Policy reported that Mahan Air, an airline linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, which has been designated as a terror organization by the US and other governments, continued flights to China until after the Iranian Parliamentary Elections, knowing full well the health risk that such flights entailed.  Similarly, it took some time for the Sheikh Hasina government to block off flights into the country.  

When the Iranian government could no longer hide the pandemic due to the existence of mass graves within the country, they started to blame their traditional enemies for the pandemic.  According to Foreign Policy, Hossam Salami, the Commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, claims that the virus is a “Zionist biological terror attack” and an “American biological invasion.” The Times of Israel reported that Ayatollah Ali Khamenei blames the virus on demons identified in the Quran as “jinn,” or genies and the American intelligence forces working in tandem with them.    If Bangladesh reaches to where Iran presently is, then one can only expect the creation of conspiracy theories blaming religious minorities for the virus, just as Iran blames its traditional adversaries for the pandemic and YNET reported that some Neo-Nazis extremists in America are blaming the coronavirus on the Jews.  If this should happen, then the plight of minorities in Bangladesh will go from horrific to worse.  





Rachel Avraham

Rachel Avraham is the CEO of the Dona Gracia Center for Diplomacy and the editor of the Economic Peace Center, which was established by Ayoob Kara, who served as Israel's Communication, Cyber and Satellite Minister. For close to a decade, she has been an Israel-based journalist, specializing in radical Islam, abuses of human rights and minority rights, counter-terrorism, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iran, and other issues of importance. Avraham is the author of “Women and Jihad: Debating Palestinian Female Suicide Bombings in the American, Israeli and Arab Media," a ground-breaking book endorsed by Former Israel Consul General Yitzchak Ben Gad and Israeli Communications Minister Ayoob Kara that discusses how the media exploits the life stories of Palestinian female terrorists in order to justify wanton acts of violence. Avraham has an MA in Middle Eastern Studies from Ben-Gurion University. She received her BA in Government and Politics with minors in Jewish Studies and Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Maryland at College Park.