“My husband struggled to find a job,” said a young Bangladeshi mother. “My grades began to suffer during the lockdown,” said a Bangladeshi teenager. “Family relatives couldn't visit each other,” said an anxious retired Bangladeshi man. These are some of the worries that gripped the people of Bangladesh during the Covid-19 pandemic.
As a young Bangladeshi, who was fortunate enough to not face any debilitating problems during the pandemic, I wanted to learn more about the other side of the story. I saw news clips on the internet and noticed my parents had become frustrated over the situation in Bangladesh. I read statistics about the number of daily Covid-19 cases and how quickly people were dying in hospitals. True, these numbers affected me, but only to a certain degree, because at the end of the day, I saw them just as numbers. But, of course, they were more than that. These were the lives of people. Fathers. Mothers. Sisters. Brothers. I wanted to connect deeper with the situation and wanted to gain a more empathetic perspective on the impact that this virus had on Bangladeshis, which, perhaps, numbers alone could not facilitate. Bangladesh, like any other country, saw terrible times during the pandemic. No suffering of any kind is small or trivial. As a Bangladeshi, I wanted to highlight the stories of my country and raise awareness about the problems that occurred in Bangladesh.
Several Bangladeshis were interviewed, varying in both age and socioeconomic status, and were asked to share their experiences during the pandemic. In this article, they share the negative ways the pandemic and the lockdown affected them, as well as some of the unexpected positive outcomes that came with it, and their reactions to how the Bangladeshi government handled the situation.
How did the covid-19 pandemic and lockdown affect you?
The negative impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown had a variety of forms. From hindering a child’s education to struggling to put food on the table, countless Bangladeshis have experienced an unforgiving time these past two years.
As the entire world saw a new face to education as online schooling took place, Bangladeshi students spent 18 months straight sitting in front of computer screens, dreaming about the wooden benches, the blackboards, and the familiar sound of school bells, which slowly started to grow more and more unfamiliar.
“I struggled to concentrate on my studies, which impacted my grades,” said a 17-year-old male student. Not only that, but he also mentioned how his eyesight became worse due to staring at his computer screen for long periods. However, reflecting on his online school journey, he was overall grateful that he at least managed to continue with his education, unlike many students in the villages of Bangladesh.
“In our village [Sapahar Upazila, Naogaon], not many students were able to continue with their studies during the lockdown because very few people had phones or computers,” said Mrs. Monira Khatun, a 24-year-old villager, whose older son had a rocky start to school during the pandemic. Mrs. Khatun further shared how amongst the students whose education had come to a halt during the lockdown, many of them still have not managed to return to school.
As the virus started to spread more and more, people grew increasingly worried about themselves and their families.
“My wife has diabetes, so I was very worried about her,” said Mr. Musharref Husain, a 73-year-old retired geologist. “Not only that, we couldn’t even meet any of our relatives. Everyone was stuck inside their homes, detached from real human interactions,” continued Mr. Husain.
People found it extremely difficult to stay away from their families and the isolation soon started to creep in and affect people mentally.
“I suffered a lot emotionally at one point. I had no one to share my pain and problems with; I had to bottle them up. I became very quiet and would cry frequently at night before going to sleep,” said a 17-year-old female domestic worker as she opened up about the past two challenging years of her life. She also developed painful headaches during the lockdown and mentioned that now if anything is amiss, even simple things, she experiences headaches.
Alongside the damage to education and mental health, the pandemic has also affected people’s financial well-being. Many people from the village traveled to cities to find work and generate income for their families. However, once the lockdown was put in place, many families in villages began to struggle financially. The people in Bangladeshi villages were not the only ones who fell victim to money problems; people in the capital city, Dhaka, did as well.
“As a result of Covid-19, many people’s lives have changed. One afternoon, I saw a woman with a young child begging on the street. She was dressed in a way that indicated that she was previously from the middle-class part of society. At one point, the woman fell to the ground and started bawling; she had never imagined that there would come a point in her life where she would have to beg,” said a 23-year-old male student, living in Dhaka. He proceeded to mention how many people in Dhaka had to find smaller, cheaper places to live as they lost their jobs, making them unable to pay their rent.
However, it was also during Covid-19 that Bangladesh saw humanity thrive. During the pandemic, the 23-year-old student’s aunt stopped taking rent from a few people because she was aware of their difficult financial circumstances. Moreover, many young people even offered to do grocery shopping for elderly couples.
What were some of your positive experiences during the lockdown?
When asked, “What were some of the positive impacts of the Covid-19 lockdown on your life?”, a few interviewees were slightly taken aback. They struggled to answer the question at their first attempt as the lockdown and the pandemic did more harm than good. The question had to be rephrased. Were you able to spend more time with your family? Did you develop any new hobbies? Soon, the interviewees were able to find a silver lining.
Mr. Husain was delighted to say that, despite all the negatives, he managed to spend a lot of time with his two young grandsons. Mr. Husain also mentioned how a country, like Bangladesh, which suffered from multiple power cuts in a day, experienced almost no power cuts during the lockdown as all the institutions were closed. This was significantly positive for students as they managed to go through online schooling without much interruption.
The 17-year-old domestic worker nurtured the artistic side of her personality as she found herself with lots of free time when the lockdown ensued. Moreover, her ability to read and write greatly improved as she was able to dedicate more time to learning. She also learned to dream. She said, “I have no mother, nor do I have anyone in my family that I am close with. I want to achieve something in my life and make something out of myself.”
It is not only the 17-year-old girl who has developed positive habits, but there are also many others in Bangladesh just like her, and ‘working-from-home’ may have something to do with it.
“During Covid, a lot of people had to start working from home, which cleared up more time, giving people the chance to engage in more recreational activities and be more creative,” said the 23-year-old student. He continued to say: “There are more positive sides to working from home than just that. Since people didn’t have to worry about traveling to work and sitting through the infamous traffic jams of Dhaka, they ultimately managed to get more work done. Also, with the reduced number of cars and buses on the road, there was less air pollution in Bangladesh.”
How did you feel about the way the government responded to the pandemic?
Considering that Bangladesh is a developing country, many of the interviewees said that they were relatively satisfied with what the government did. However, they also thought that the government could have handled some matters more skilfully.
“To ensure the education of Bangladeshi students, a 10 am program on the BTV channel was started, which focused on delivering lessons. However, how many children regularly followed the program is not known. Also, online schooling was only possible if the student had a laptop, phone, or computer. Some of the students, who perhaps were not able to afford such devices, did not manage to do online schooling. And the government did not provide laptops to these students either,” said the aforementioned 17-year-old male student.
“In the villages, we did not have much to do due to the restrictive rules that came with the lockdown. I think if some small communities were set up, strictly following the lockdown guidelines, that taught women employability skills in villages, it really would have helped us out,” shared Mrs. Monira Khatun.
When asked to provide details about how the Bangladeshi government handled vaccinating such a large population, Mr. Husain said, “They first prioritized the 60+ as they were the vulnerable group. They used places like communities and leisure centers.” Although the vaccine was made easily accessible to people, getting tested for the Covid-19 virus was quite the opposite. Mr. Husain shared that the PCR tests were too expensive for people and if one were to fall ill due to the virus, it was, once again, way too expensive to get admitted to a hospital.
“The government could have been stricter with some matters. For example, the testing protocols at airports could have been more vigorous. The situation becomes worse when people carrying the virus are allowed to just roam freely,” said the aforementioned 23-year-old student.
The Covid-19 lockdown was physically and emotionally painful for many in Bangladesh. Some are still recuperating from the effects of the pandemic as Bangladesh returns to its usual state and restores hope in its people.