UN resident coordinator tells The Daily Star in an interview with TDS Diplomatic Correspondent Porimol Palma.
TDS: What challenges are being posed by the coronavirus pandemic globally?
Mia Seppo: This is an unprecedented crisis in our modern world which both high income and low-income countries are facing simultaneously, and they are competing for the same supplies. At this point, the foremost challenge is trying to control the pandemic nationally and globally. To do so, it is priority to ensure humanitarian access and opening of corridors for safe and timely movement of goods and personnel. This is vital for saving lives and reducing the negative social and economic impacts of the pandemic.
TDS: What are the specific challenges for Bangladesh?
Mia Seppo: Bangladesh is a country with a very high population density which creates favourable conditions for the spread of Covid-19. Therefore, we welcome the government commitment to implement measures to ensure social distancing. We fully understand the consequences that these measures are generating, with deep impact on the low-income segments of the society. We welcome the efforts by government, civil society groups and volunteers to help the vulnerable groups needing food and protection. During these particularly difficult moments, solidarity is put to a test.
With almost all countries impacted by Covid-19, there is a global shortage related to medical equipment and supplies, making it a challenge to identify and procure necessities. This calls for local solutions. Bangladesh is a nation with a lot of manufacturing and strong private sector capacity that can be mobilised to fill gaps in the production of essential supplies, including hygiene products. Health systems around the world have buckled under the pressure of a peak of Covid-19 cases. The present measures taken by the government offer a window to strengthen the readiness of the health care sector in Bangladesh.
TDS: How do you think Bangladesh government is tackling the pandemic? Do you have any suggestions?
Mia Seppo: The magnitude of the current health crisis is so severe that even countries with strong health systems are currently overwhelmed and facing enormous challenges in responding to high number of cases. Currently, Bangladesh is facing clusters of cases and high-risk areas have been put in lockdown. Physical distancing measures are important because they can slow the spread of the virus, but they will not stop the pandemic. While in the majority of cases the virus isn't deadly, it's vital to act now to slow its spread and ensure healthcare systems can cope.
Furthermore, physical distancing is a defensive measure. To win, we need to attack the virus with aggressive and targeted tactics -- finding cases, isolating and caring for every confirmed case, and tracing and quarantining every close contact. In summary; to turn the pandemic around, countries need to invest in comprehensive, innovative and localised approaches.
TDS: Joblessness or lack of business opportunities have become major worries for Bangladesh. What would be your suggestions in addressing it?
Mia Seppo: As the (UN) secretary general said, we must tackle the devastating social and economic dimensions of this crisis, with a focus on those most affected: women, older persons, youth, low-wage workers, small and medium-sized enterprises, the informal sector and vulnerable groups. The recovery from the Covid-19 crisis must lead to a different economy. Everything we do during and after this crisis must be done with a strong focus on building more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and the many other global challenges we face.
The Bangladesh government was quick to announce extra support, especially food, for those struggling during the holidays. As the crisis is still progressing in Bangladesh, we have to wait for some time for a fuller understanding of the impacts it will have. For creating jobs, a major short-term impetus could come from ramping up public investment and public works. Importantly, the government and the private sector could strategise to ensure security, safety, adequate finance, transportation and trade logistics so that the closed factories and enterprises can recover and rebuild.
TDS: Bangladesh has some 10 million migrant workers spread mostly across the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Many are losing jobs and distressed. How can the UN help in this regard?
Mia Seppo: This virus has shown that it does not discriminate, and we are all vulnerable to the effects of it. However, some in our global society are more vulnerable to the economic and social impacts it is having and will have. Covid-19 can be controlled only if there is an inclusive global approach which protects every individual's rights to life and health, including migrants regardless of their migratory status. Migrants and refugees are disproportionately vulnerable to exclusion, stigma and discrimination, particularly when undocumented. The UN has been advocating for governments around the world to do all they can to protect the rights and the health of everyone. Further, it is important that migrants are included in measures that are being introduced to mitigate the economic downturn caused by Covid-19.
TDS: UN prepared a plan to support Bangladesh in the fight against Covid-19. Can you please detail it?
Mia Seppo: The plan looks at key areas for enhancing government capacity: surveillance and laboratory support, contact tracing and screening, case management and infection prevention control, risk communication and community engagement, logistics and procurement, preserving social cohesion. At this stage, the top priority is scaling up testing capacities, equipping the health care system for a potential influx of severe and critical Covid-19 cases. This includes sourcing relevant PPE, other medical equipment and supplies, training for health staff, and urgent communications with the general population about Covid-19.
The nature of the global pandemic, global competition over scare resources and the potential far-reaching consequences of the pandemic are reverberating around the world. Now more than ever it's important for all governments, including here in Bangladesh, to utilise all capacity available in the country to address this crisis, something the Bangladesh government has already been working on with support from the UN, civil society and partners.
TDS: Isn't it a time of global solidarity in real sense?
Mia Seppo: UN Secretary-General António Guterres has recently urged warring parties across the world to lay down their weapons in support of the bigger battle against Covid-19: the common enemy that is now threatening all of humankind. This is a time of and for global solidarity. The virus has shown that it does not discriminate, and we are all vulnerable to its effects. We know that developing countries are much more likely to bear the brunt of health and economic impacts of Covid-19.
Despite the challenges all countries are facing, we've also seen them working together to support each other as best they can whether through supplying much needed equipment and supplies, treatment facilities, or even manpower.
My hope is that when the threat of Covid-19 reduces and we move to recovery, socially, economically and mentally, we will see the difference it made to have a multilateral approach at the global level, unified responses at the country level and communities and individuals coming together. My hope is that we will learn the importance of pulling together. The response to Covid-19 is only as strong as its weakest link, as the weakest health system. Therefore, more than ever, we cannot leave anyone behind.