Covid-19 casts a shadow on the world including Bangladesh

The impact of the novel strain of coronavirus officially designated as COVID-19 by World Health Organization (earlier referred to as 2019-nCoV) has also cast its long shadow on Bangladesh. However, it is also true that despite its high population and its great density, the impact has been, most fortunately, till now, relatively quite negligible.

The latest entry into this unfortunate list includes Bangladesh. It was reported on 9 March that the first coronavirus cases had also been confirmed in our country. The three affected persons- aged between 20 and 35, from the same Bangladeshi family- tested positive and are presently undergoing treatment in a hospital in Dhaka. Two of them had returned from Italy and the third had contact with them. Apparently, 3 more have also been quarantined.

Nevertheless, the response by the Bangladesh government and the Prime Minister, in this historic month of March when we are celebrating the 100th birth anniversary of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, the Father of our Nation, has been exemplary. Both Sheikh Hasina and her sister Sheikh Rehana, through a very constructive initiative has made a drastic revision of the agenda for the coming celebrations during the ‘Mujib Barsho ‘. This has been done in the interest of upholding welfare of all citizens.  

After an in-depth discussion related to the different aspects of the agenda for this important occasion and the possibility of the COVID-19 affecting the participants, it has been decided to curtail celebrations. Programmes have now been re-organized with greater emphasis being given to digitalization and the use of the electronic media. This will be in addition to the use of the print media. Instead of the celebrations being inaugurated on 17 March in the Parade Ground, in the open, with nearly one hundred thousand spectators, in the presence of important foreign guests, it will now be undertaken through the Prime Minister addressing the nation in the evening of that date and the telecasting of speeches, cultural performances and video records through the television.

The Prime Minister decided on this format to avoid any possibility of such a huge gathering becoming the source point for the spread of the COVID-19 virus infection. Political leaders from different countries, including India and Canada, and different international institutions and organizations were also immediately informed and explained about why the government is taking this cautionary step. It was also indicated that their invitation would continue and that the government hoped that they would be able to attend future functions related to the celebrations later on during the year. The Prime Minister has also cancelled her visit to Japan scheduled for March 30.

It may be noted that by 12 March the virus had spread to 105 countries. The evolving scenario by that date had resulted in more than 4,050 deaths all over the world. The disease has already resulted in 1, 14,151 confirmed cases in these countries. Medical analysts have consequently noted that the deadly aspects of this Virus have now surpassed that of the SARS epidemic outbreak that had taken place in China in 2003.

The evolving dynamics pertaining to this virus is creating havoc in different countries.

Its impact is however gradually reducing in China. Chinese state media outlet Xinhua has reported that at least 11 of the 16 makeshift hospitals in the Chinese virus epicenter of Wuhan have been closed. The makeshift hospitals - in stadiums, schools, and elsewhere - treated patients who suffered from mild symptoms. This has happened as the number of new coronavirus cases in China has steadily decreased.

It has nonetheless assumed terrible proportions in certain countries- outside China. This includes South Korea, Iran and Italy. The whole population of Italy is now facing quarantine and virtual lock down. The number of cases in that country has now risen to 9, 172 from 1, 492 – from a few days ago. The number of fatalities has also risen to 467. 

Iran has released 70,000 prisoners and is trying its best to combat the spread of this virus in crowded jails. The country has reported 291 deaths in less than two weeks. On Tuesday, their Health Ministry said the number of confirmed cases had risen by more than 50% for the second day in a row. It now stands at 8,182, although the real figure is believed to be far higher. It is also being reported that there have been more than 100 fatalities including that of some senior Iranian Officials.

South Korea has also witnessed the emergence of more than 7, 500 COVID-19 cases with more than 60 per cent of the total cases linked to believers from a secretive church. There have been over 50 deaths. The South Korean government has taken severe coordinated measures to contain the problem and that appears to be working as in the case of China. This has included the suspension of of visa waivers for Japanese nationals in response to Tokyo’s own travel restrictions on Korean citizens.

India with around 40 confirmed cases of the virus so far have started initiating careful measures. This is being done as pre-emptive measures to avoid possible exacerbation of this Virus among its massive population. Indian authorities in the port city of Mangalore have recently turned away a cruise ship with 1,400 passengers which was due to dock there. The country's Shipping Ministry has issued an advisory that says no cruise ships from foreign countries can dock anywhere in India, as part of coronavirus preventive measures. Similarly another cruise ship has recently been rejected permission by Thailand and Malaysia to dock in their ports. It was eventually allowed to dock in Singapore. Such measures are however no longer being considered as xenophobic as they are being taken in public interest.

Latest reports have indicated that the virus appears to have also spread into Switzerland, Germany, France and several other European countries. This gradual spread has also included the presence of this Virus in both the UK as well as in the USA. It has been announced recently that in the UK, Nealth Minister Ms Dorries, MP is among 382 persons who have tested positive and that six persons had already died in that country. There has also been a rising casualty rate in the USA in different States of that country.

In this context, Stephen Dowling has recalled what happened in the aftermath of World War One over one hundred years ago. A flu pandemic swept the world, killing at least 50 million people. This came while the world was recovering from a global war that had killed some 20 million people.

Many of the people dying from Covid-19 are succumbing to a form of pneumonia, which takes hold as the immune system is weakened from fighting the virus. This is something that it shares with Spanish flu – though it must be said that the death rate from Covid-19 till now, has fortunately been many times lower than that of Spanish flu.

Global markets have already seen heightened volatility over fears of a major economic hit from the coronavirus outbreak. Asian investors also reacted to a slump in Chinese export figures and the shrinking of the Japanese economy.

Last week, oil exporters' group OPEC - which includes Saudi Arabia - agreed to cut production in order to support prices. However, it also wanted non-Opec oil producers such as Russia to agree to cuts. Russia rejected the plans. In response, Saudi Arabia has cut its official selling prices for oil and plans to increase production. The move is seen as Saudi Arabia flexing its muscles in the oil market to make Russia fall into line. Markets subsequently have been rattled because of this price war and oil prices have crashed by more than 30% in the recent past and energy firms have seen some of the biggest share price falls.

Australia-listed Oil Search's share price has dropped by 31% while energy firm Santos has seen its shares drop by more than 27% in value. It needs to be remembered that Oil and other commodity companies make up a large part of the Australian stock market. In Australia, the ASX 200 has slumped nearly 7.3%, its biggest daily drop since 2008.

China’s latest import and export figures for the first two months of the year indicate that their exports have fallen by 17.2% while imports have dropped by 4%. This has led to the Chinese economy towards a trade deficit of US $7.1 billion as it struggles with the economic impact of the coronavirus outbreak.

In Japan, market sentiment has been hit by GDP data that has shown a plunge in economic growth of -7.1% in the fourth quarter of 2019. Its benchmark Nikkei 225 index has also fallen by nearly 5%.

In US markets: - (a) falls on the Dow Jones index of major companies were led by oil firms Chevron and Exxon Mobil, which fell by more than 7%; (b) on the Nasdaq Composite, hard drive maker Western Digital has fallen 11% and Tesla by 10% and (c) oil firms Apache and Marathon oil have led the S&P 500 index down, dropping 40% apiece.

The International Monetary Fund has announced a US $50 billion line of support for countries hit by the coronavirus. The World Bank has also taken a pro-active step by promising US $12 billion in supporting financial help. The UK, Australia Australia and Malaysia have cut interest rates in response to the outbreak. At the same time finance ministers from the G7 nations have also pledged to use "all appropriate policy tools" to tackle the economic impact of coronavirus. All this is being done because the outbreak appears to have already pushed this year's global economic growth below last year's levels. Some financial analysts have also indicated that this Virus may eventually lead to a total loss of US $ 2 trillion to the global economy.

The dire effects on the Bangladesh economy have also been witnessed not only with regard to its export and import paradigms but also in its stock markets. Fortunately after a terrible fall in the DSEX on 9 March, the biggest in 7 years, it managed to retrieve essential ground by gaining 148 points the very next day. One can only hope that manufacturers and traders in this country do not end up adding to the already increasing Non-Performing Loan structure.

The world needs to work together- and that is the only way we can overcome the evolving socio-economic and humanitarian crisis that is being created by this morphing Virus.  

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance