UN’s 2 million of 1998, 2020 a big why!
April 4th, 2020 at 2:40 pm
These figures shake the population of the country the report is targeted at and also the authorities concerned who might be doing everything within its means to deal with the situation armed with what is available to deal with a developing incident.
UN’s 2 million of 1998, 2020 a big why!

Nadeem Qadir:

One has to wonder why large numbers are forecast when it comes to fears of people dying in calamities in Bangladesh by United Nation agencies. Is it that this South Asian country is overpopulated with many still under the poverty line?

According to a leaked inter-agency UN memo “Bangladesh is facing up to two million deaths from the COVID-19 epidemic if immediate steps are not taken to suppress the virus.”

Media reports quoted the 26 March 2020 dated memo as saying that “Given the extraordinary human densities in Bangladesh, globally accepted modelling techniques and parameter assumptions forecast the impact of COVID-19 without interventions (to result in) between half a million up to 2 million lives lost during the epidemic wave.”

“These figures are not surprising when considered against modelling in other countries but they are astounding and should serve as a call to action.”

This memo titled “Country Preparedness and Response Plan” was written jointly by UN agencies, the Bangladesh government, development partners and the World Health Organisation, the organisation’s country chief, Bardan Jung Rana, told online news site Netra News.

Let me first go back my memory lane.

In 1998, one of the worst floods in decades swamped entire Bangladesh and this author had travelled the length and breadth of this calamity-prone country by boats and helicopters setting out daily from my flooded home in Gulshan area, where many diplomatic missions are located with many of the expatriate community living in the locality.

From the ground floor foyer of my house, one needed a boat to set out to reach a part of the main road crossing the area to get a bus to my office, Dhaka bureau of Agence France-Presse (AFP), in Motijheel business district.

Only buses could operate due to its high body cha chassis that could push through flood waters in many parts of Dhaka, including Motijheel itself.

It was during one of the flood days that I was informed that experts of the UN Disaster Team were available to the media after their assessment of the flood situation. The month was September and I walked into one of the UN offices in Dhanmondi. To my utter surprise there were a few journalists present, who left hurriedly after the Team leader spoke briefly mentioning vaguely about two million people in grave danger.

I had a quick look at my notes and walked up to the UN Disaster Team leader. After a brief conversation to clarify some points, I wrote my intro and showed it to him to be sure I got every word, coma and full-stop 200 percent correct as it was a huge figure. The figure told me I had a huge story and also a very sensitive one.

The Team leader approved and as I took a rickshaw back to my Motijheel office, I was restless to put on the AFP wire quickly as it was a huge EXCLUSIVE story and on the other hand, I visualised a grim picture of so many lives lost to the calamity if that forecast became true.

The story was something like this:

Bangladesh-floods-UN/ BULLETIN/ At least two million people may die of hunger if adequate food cannot be reached on time to the worst flood-hit areas of Bangladesh, facing its worst deluge in a century, UN experts told AFP here.”

Bangladesh-floods-UN, lead/URGENT/ At least two million people may die of hunger if adequate food cannot be reached on time to the worst flood-hit areas of Bangladesh, facing its worst deluge in a century, UN experts told AFP here.

“Bangladesh urgently needs to ensure that adequate amount of food reached the worst flood-hit areas as soon as possible otherwise some two million may die of hunger with crops washed away by the deluge and along with local food storage also under water … ,” (name forgotten), UN Disaster Team told AFP.

Bangladesh-floods-2ndlead/ At least two million people may die of hunger if adequate food cannot be reached on time to the worst flood-hit areas of Bangladesh, facing its worst deluge in a century, UN experts said here Monday.” 

“Bangladesh urgently needs to ensure that adequate amount of food reached the worst flood-hit areas as soon as possible otherwise some two million may die of hunger with crops washed away by the deluge and along with local food storage also under water … ,” (name forgotten), UN Disaster Team told AFP.

He added: “(vague recollection) the government must include all options available to secure food on time to the most vulnerable population who neither have their own storage or cash neither can they travel anywhere to get food.”

Onrush of water — Photo Sabbir Khan

That story became the top story of the next two days and our central report from AFP headquarters in Paris showed a more than a “landslide” in scoring globally from newspapers (having my byline), TV and radio. A huge cheers for me from my head office, regional office and of course colleagues in different countries. Such hits are rare and that was possible my biggest hit story after the one I did on the decision to resign by late President Hussain Muhammad Ershad in December, 1990.

It is not sharing a most gratifying moment for the sake of it, but because of what happened soon after the story was released on the AFP wire. Those cheers mattered a lot after a grueling 20 hours being grilled by all elements for “triggering panic,” “tarnishing government’s image” and “a misunderstood and misquoted” news.

The British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) splashed the news in its TV as a “Breaking News.” The authorities first contacted them as it did not give due credit to AFP for the story, even though an exclusive item. Sensing trouble, the BBC told Dhaka authorities that it was “in fact” an AFP story. The guns turned at me from mid-night based on assumed or second-hand reported contents of the news.

Telephone calls came from a number of places, including the prime minister’s press secretary. The most important one was from late ABM Musa, the legendary journalist, around breakfast time. “What have you reported … all rubbish,” he told me angrily. I explained and then he asked me to get a print of the news before meeting him as soon as possible. I followed suit. Explained with the “ifs” and “buts” ABM Musa calmed down and told me it was ok. “Misunderstanding created by misquoting the story itself by some elements.”

The fact is none died of hunger in the 1998 floods, but from drowning, snake bites, thunder strikes and water-borne diseases. The toll was a few hundred.

Coronavirous pathogen

Once again, when the world is grappling with the coronavirus, the WHO put the same figure of death in Bangladesh with people falling prey to the bug.

Why is it always two million and why not 200 or 2,000? When the organisation’s country representative told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that “globally accepted modelling techniques were used (to put that figure) assuming that no intervention was taken to stem the spread of the coronavirus in order to portray the possible magnitude of the outbreak.”

“The United Nations is fully supportive of the measures the government of Bangladesh has been taking to slow the spread of Covid-19,” said a statement, adding that “Preparedness is ongoing, being scaled up continuously in terms of supplies, PPEs, testing capacity or capacity building for health workers and health facilities.”

But the UN memo warns that a lockdown will not be enough to suppress the virus and that the government must immediately crank up testing and contact-tracing, procure more hospital equipment and medical protective clothing, conduct healthcare training programs and community education as “Bangladesh has been agonisingly slow to implement testing and other measures aimed at curbing the spread of the virus.”

While the UN memo acknowledged that the government’s failure to lockdown the capital earlier “likely dispersed incubating and infectious individuals throughout the country”, it also observed the exodus may also lessen the case burden on overpopulated Dhaka and the combined impact of government-imposed social distancing, school, business, and public transport closures nationally meant that the “COVID-19 reproductive rate will be at its lowest level since (the virus first appeared) in Bangladesh.”

What is strange for me as a journalist that while putting such a huge figure of loss of lives based on a typical population density and available facilities, why international organisations tend to stress on such a huge figure instead of putting the real needs to check human fatalities.

These figures shake the population of the country the report is targeted at and also the authorities concerned who might be doing everything within its means to deal with the situation armed with what is available to deal with a developing incident.

In 1998, it was Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina who was in power in her first term in office and again in 2020, once again, one of the most coveted world leader now is in office in her fourth term in office.

One must point out to these international organisations that first, they must consider the country’s leadership at the time of any crisis and two, Bangladesh, in their own statements, is no more a backward country which is heading to become a middle-income country soon.

Let me end with the 1998 UN Disaster Assessment Team’s final report:

“Disaster Emergency Committee — Bangladesh: 1998 Flood Appeal / An Independent Evaluation”: Final Report: January, 2000.

In 1988 (late President Hussain Muhammad Ershad), the report criticised the effectiveness and continuity of local coordination efforts, where as in 1998, “Disaster Emergency Committee (DEC) agencies were quite positive about the adequacy of communications, preparedness, and government-NGO cooperation.” 

It continued (A)“The scale and the intensity of the 1988 floods and reduced loss of life comparative to the previous floods suggests that the people have highly developed capacities to cope” with strong awareness campaigns on safe drinking water.

water-waves

(B) “The Mission concludes that there was adequate coordination among the government and non-governmental actors during the flood response. As a result of this coordination, duplication of relief and rehabilitation efforts was for the most part, kept at minimum levels.

(C) On the whole, those who most needed relief and rehabilitation efforts were provided for, although to varying extents.”

(D) “There is general consensus that disaster relief was handled better for the 1998 floods than for the severe flooding ten years before in 1988.”

(E) “Throughout Bangladesh there was a widespread mobilisation of volunteer assistance during the 1988 floods.”

(F) “There is some criticism that the NGOs targetted their own group members disproportionately.”

It is clear that in 1988 the country was under military dictator Hussain Muhammad Ershad and the people suffered more than 1998 deluge as an elected prudent leader, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, was in charge of Bangladesh.

Floods cannot be controlled, but easier to save lives if proper action is undertaken. In the current situation, big bug corona, is many times dangerous to human lives and invisible, but the common factor is acting honestly, timely and accurately can save lives.

This time around, as latest indications suggests that Bangladesh has fared well so far, and the country under Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina will come out of the crisis with flying colours. It is not only the 1998 floods, but also many other crises she has faced and come out successfully — natural, man-made and political.

The international organisations like WHO thus must refrain from making such scary figures in public, but instead sound out the government of such dangers and the things to do to stop such human disasters.

Nadeem Qadir is a senior Bangladeshi journalist and a Dag Hammarskjöld fellow,- newsnextbd.com