Televisions daily show us the tireless efforts of people tasked to keep people indoors getting desperate as many simply ignore the urgency of staying home and social distancing. The Bangladesh army is among them.
The men and women in uniform are out across Bangladesh risking their lives and to save the lives of others. That has been the trade mark of our army.
In my visits, during the 1988 and 1998 massive floods, the 1991 mega cyclone and once again currently they are aiding the civil administration to help contain the spread of the deadly COVID-19, an unseen enemy.
During the floods they canoed to remote areas and the army aviation helicopters shuttled between the cities and remote areas where people waiting for food and medical help labelled them as “angels.”
They played a vital role on orders from Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to ensure zero death from hunger in the 1998 deluge, the worst in the century. The UN Disaster Team had predicted millions of death from hunger, but the premier, in her first term in office, proved them wrong.
Their service during the 1971 Independence War will always be written in golden letters and let us not forget the laurels they bring as blue berets in unknown terrains.
As the coronavirus attacked Bangladesh, the troops were again called in to help the civil administration to enforce lockdowns by making people aware why it was important to stay at home and make sure they stayed indoors.
In exclusive comments made to this author soon after the troops were deployed nationwide, General Aziz Ahmed said the “Army will do everything possible under the prudent leadership of our Hon’ble Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina to fight the virus,” adding that “Army will render services in aid to Civil Power as long as the government wants.”
The army chief said “the common people, including the civil administrations are highly energized & seem to be mentally relieved due to Army presence & assistance to fight coronavirus threat.”
“We are soldiers, we are always ready to fight. We are ready to help everyone … InshaAllah army men will do their best,” assured General Aziz.
According to Lieutenant Colonel Abdullah Ibne Zaid, Director of the Inter-Services Public Relations Directorate, explained earlier that more than 7,000 army men and women have been deployed so far and they were working with “humanity in mind” so that the people like rickshaw pullers who live by the day did not suffer.
The armed forces since being deployed on 24 March have been distributing food and other much needed items like hand sanitizers, soaps, masks and gloves among the poor in various areas.
Bound by rules that includes being “polite” with their target group and no “physical action,” the task it appears is getting increasingly tougher than had been thought when the deployment was planned.
Media reports and witnesses said in most parts of Bangladesh it appears that the target groups, having knowledge, that the army has no power to punish them, simply ignored their orders too. Such a scenario would frustrate anyone committed to his task.
The members of the army are also humans and if they are frustrated, then one cannot blame them. It is their politeness verses peoples’ adamant to break the government order to stay home.
“They should be given powers to enforce their job,” said Omar Faruq, a journalist working for the Somoy TV after covering almost all parts of capital Dhaka. He told this author that his experience of people heeding to the army requests to stay home is “disappointing.”
Faruq pointed out that the fact is that the people on the roads or markets were well-aware about the risk of getting sick with COVID-19, but then again it was a “holiday” for them with no serious punishment for their rowdy acts.
Others watching the situation were of the same opinion as this author has previously proposed — give army the teeth and make their presence worth.
One idea has been that either the army deployed be given magistracy powers or attach one executive magistrate to deal with the legal aspects that arises during their daily operations. That will also make it clear the army meant business and make the operation successful.
A successful operation is a must for the sake of the country.
“They can also handover the disobedient people to the police with the help of magistracy powers or the executive magistrate,” said one defence analyst.
Told what will be the answer to ensure maximum enforcement of the stay home orders, journalist Omar Faruq said “If lockdown is ignored and if we want to save lives, then curfew is the answer with army taking charge” backed by police and the elite Rapid Action Battalion (RAB).
“Let the army show its might as they do in UN Peace Keeping missions in a foreign land,” he added.
A curfew, it appears, is not the most popular solution for the policy-makers as that will put the lives of those who have small businesses and day workers in jeopardy. Having said that, a curfew at least between 13 to 16 to tide over the dangers of crowding over the Bengali New Year on 14 April, might be considered.
In any case, the first thing is to ensure that food aid reached every slum and home of people who needed it.
With media reports of irregularities in food distribution, the policy-makers may consider setting up of a central food depot in towns and cities with the army in-charge of its safe-keeping and distribution. The food should include milk for the children to be supplied not only by major dairy producers like Arong and BRAC, but also small timers in those areas. That will ensure both earnings for the small dairy farm owners and good health for the children.
Medical services under the army should be kept ready for any health requirements.
Such measures may help contain the COVID-19 and stopping the feared epidemic with people also ensured that food and medical treatment were in hand without pilferage.
Thus an army with limited “teeth” and assurance of food aid may be the keys to a successful mission by our proud men and women in uniform sweating out under the scorching sun without the maximum results as expected so far.