"Ma'am, could you possibly tell me when would the university go back to its usual routine?"
When you meet 10 such "rhetorical" queries per day, it is not unusual that you answer curtly with a straight "no", then add a customary precautionary phrase "DO NOT roam outside"; and finally, genuinely mean "stay safe"!
On the completion of almost one month of class suspension, next, what you hear oozes dismal melancholia and angst, "I am worried, not that I will die of corona. But what if I live on the other side of this pandemic. I am tensed about my future. Probably, I will lose all my tutoring gigs. It will be a lot more difficult to find new ones then. My father was never in a position to support me. What will happen then?"
All you could manage to say at the end of that semi-monologue is, a not-very-assuring template, "We will try our best to address your issue. This too shall pass!"
This can be called a précis of many conversations that almost each of us are having with the students these days. The beauty of public universities in Bangladesh is that it holds a beacon of hope for students from even the humblest of backgrounds and diversity has always been a dominant feature in here. Thus, a huge portion of these students earn not only their educational expenses but also contributes to their families by giving tuitions or by doing part-time chores. Solely for this reason, many of these students were simply not interested to leave their dormitories even when a strong campaign for suspending classes and complete shut-down was going on in different university campuses following the detection of the first positive case of COVID-19 in Bangladesh on March 8.
Both the teachers and the students of Dhaka University agreed on the fact that it will be a cataclysm if any DU student/teacher/staff get infected as the campus is densely populated. When the authority was still asway before the official announcement came up, some DU students went on fast-unto-death for complete shut-down as fear had already gripped general students over the global outbreak of coronavirus. Classes were deserted; mid-terms were cancelled and with dorms closed, when the entire country was gradually walking towards an eventual lock-down, some were still calling us up to know when could the classes resume!
These queries do not stem from their recklessness or insensitivity, rather from dire nightmares of looming starvation and uncertainties of semester fees to be paid. Even our students studying abroad have been facing a similar challenge, as many of them lack a steady source of income. For example, Australia seems to have chosen to shoo away the "extra" populace. The Aussie Prime Minister Scott Morrison has already asked the struggling international students to go home as he believes it is time for his country to focus on its own citizens and residents. Similarly, USA already has arranged three special flights to take their citizens off from Bangladesh to show their responsibility to their citizens. On the other hand, with all these incoming crowd who were previously employed elsewhere, Bangladesh is going to face serious crises in the upcoming days. Corona crisis might leave by the end of May or September, as per popular speculations, but the scar it will leave behind economically, socially and culturally will keep taking its toll for a very long time. Amid these, all our "assuring" replies to our students falter and fall apart, because we barely have any contingency plan, at least, as of now.
After World War I, humans first realised the concept of home or being safe at home did not exist anymore. By then, they had seen that even kids could get bombed in their cradles amid lullabies. Poets came up with "fancy" words like angst, ennui or alienation to describe the time of that "wasteland". When, hyperbolically, many are mulling over whether this pandemic has the stature of WWIII or not, we cannot deny that it has a similar take on "home". We are not getting over the frenzy of the phrase "stay home" any time soon. But, what about those who do not have one? This is a most cogent question that our professor emeritus Serajul Islam Choudhury has aptly asked. Let alone the homeless lot, a big chunk of our menial workers live in crowded spaces in dingy slums. Thus, "being home" cannot simply be a euphemism for "being safe" and we must not forget that, it is a privilege to be able to practice "social distancing" that many do not have.
While scrolling through homepages, we all have come across philosophical quotes like "things will not be the same again" or "life before corona and life after corona", etc. That makes us wonder how different it is going to be at the other end of this pandemic. According to World Employment and Social Outlook report of 2020 of ILO (International Labour Organization), about 40 million people will be jobless this year, solely in South Asian countries. In a time when, number of corona cases are rapidly rising, and institutionally quarantined COVID-19 patients are fleeing in trawlers, after bribing the security guards with Tk 50,000, with zero inhibitions, saving lives is the only reality.
Being unsure about whether it is the right time to get alarmed about post-pandemic crises is not unusual. Nevertheless, this hesitance might cost us heavily as we will exhibit severe lack of preparedness once again. And, we must not forget that our severe lack of preparedness in handling an outbreak of this stature is what has made us into "hilarious" living memes, flooding the social networking sites on a daily basis. No wonder a widely-shared report by Global World Index, featured by World Economic Forum, showed that our Gen Z (age group 8-23 years) are spending most of their time online by sharing memes and streaming audio-visual contents rather than caring about corona-updates while the millennials are the confused lot, oscillating fiercely between cooking recipes and online news portals.
As millennials, we have come across a report by Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention which showed 0.2 percent of children and teenagers died compared with nearly 15 percent of people over the age of 80 which invariably led to speculations that the pandemic will leave the world with a younger demographic to wade on. Along came the idea of selective elimination which is nothing new to human history. In countries like Italy, France and even United States, the medical professionals are choosing to spend their limited resources "wisely" on those who are more likely to survive, namely the younger demographic. While, a senior citizen is gradually withering away like the last leaf of autumn, they are bound to focus on some young blood. Even in Italy, one of the senior citizens requested the caregiver to transfer his ventilator to a young boy who had shortage of breath while stating "he needs it as I already have had a fairly long life". Now, the question is "what gives"? What would a post-corona world look like to a young survivor?
From our points of view what it looks like is scary. Inevitably a significant number of students will drop out from schools. Unemployment and a looming famine might hit our agro-industrial-economy way below the belt, the first priority for all will be to eat three square meals with their family rather than paying semester fees to sit for mid-terms. And all students, ranging from primary levels to undergraduate levels, might undergo this struggle to choose between a well-fed family and a month at school.
Several DU teachers as well as departments have already made announcements to lend a hand to those in need, but they are all afraid that it will not be enough. Without institutionalised coordination and systematic distribution, all aiding efforts might just blunt off a potential weapon to fight the post-pandemic crises. Many agree that scraping off all the poor funds right away might not be a great idea, either. Rather, putting aside a certain sum to help out the poor students who will run risks of dropping out because of lack of fund could prove to be useful.
Even though each of the departments have one or more designated student advisors dedicated to look out for the students, we are still falling short. Not because we lack will, but because we lack preparation. We are not designed to handle a crisis of this stature, yet. On top of that there are no directives that we can follow. On a broader scale, it could be said that Bangladesh Ministry of Education as well as University Grants Commission are no exceptions either. We, altogether, desperately need to figure a way out.
During such a pervasive situation, we all should carry out our due roles. It would be a stupid idea for a ward councillor to get trigger happy with a baton in Tangail or wearing PPEs allotted for doctors without being one just to look like an astronaut in Facebook selfies. While forming a Central Committee to prevent corona, having doctors and researchers on board should be a priority, not the red-tape bureaucrats. Similarly, the intellectuals of the nation have their role to play as well, especially to secure the education sector in coordination with the Ministry of Education and UGC. This is their time to tear apart the torpor around the education sector and weave yarns for a post-pandemic patch up!
Zobaida Nasreen teaches anthropology at Dhaka University. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Gopa Biswas Caesar teaches at University of Dhaka. Email: email@example.com