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An agonizing farewell to an unforgettable year in Bangladesh

2020 will go down in history as a disaster for humanity, but it also provided great lessons

An agonizing farewell to an unforgettable year in Bangladesh

A Bangladeshi woman stands near her house in Koyra village of Khulna district that was destroyed by Cyclone Amphan in May. (Photo: Piyas Biswas)

As Christmas and New Year approach, billions across the globe certainly wish to forget the year 2020.

The reality is they will never forget a year that saw an invisible enemy — Covid-19 — ravage every sphere of human life in country after country.

As in other parts of the world, the pandemic has seriously impacted and overshadowed the social, economic, political, cultural and religious lives of people in Muslim-majority Bangladesh.

2020 was designated as Mujib Borsho (Year of Mujib) by the ruling Awami League government, dedicated to the centenary of the birth of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, father of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and Bangladesh’s founding leader.

The government planned to make it a signature event with hundreds of programs and activities including an international event in the capital Dhaka with 100,000 people from home and abroad on March 17 to pay tribute to the great leader who led Bangladesh to independence from Pakistan in 1971.

Most events were suspended and only some low-key public and private programs were held.

Christians attended Masses on March 17 in memory of the great leader days before the government declared a nationwide Covid-19 shutdown.

The Catholic Church vowed to plant 400,000 fruit trees across Bangladesh during the year, which also coincided with the fifth anniversary of Pope Francis’ acclaimed environmental encyclical Laudato si’ on caring for our common home.

From three early cases of Covid-19 on March 7, Bangladesh had recorded a total 503,501 infections and 7,329 deaths as of Dec. 22.

The government closed down all education institutes from March 17 indefinitely. A nationwide shutdown from the end of March to May 31 saw the lives of mostly poor and lower-income communities upended due to loss of jobs and income, forcing them to leave cities for village homes.

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Development experts warned that up to 50 million people might slip into extreme poverty from the fallout of Covid-19.

The pandemic has claimed several prominent personalities.

Dr. Anisuzzaman, a highly revered and celebrated academic, writer, educator and liberal icon, died on May 14. This prolific man was considered a guardian of the nation.

Archbishop Moses M. Costa of Chittagong died on July 13 following his apparent recovery from Covid-19. The 70-year-old secretary-general of the Catholic Bishops' Conference of Bangladesh (CBCB) was the country's most senior clergy to die during the pandemic.

Two acclaimed American Holy Cross missionaries — Father Richard William Timm and Father Eugene Homrich — died in the United States. They were two of Bangladesh’s best known missionaries who served for more than six decades.   

As the government banned public gatherings, all religious worship places were shut down. Catholic and Protestant Churches accepted online Mass to allow faithful to participate in the liturgy from their home.  The online liturgy continued until it was suspended in late October.

Church leadership changes

In February, Catholics marked the birth centenary of Archbishop T.A. Ganguly (1920-77) of Dhaka, the nation’s first candidate for sainthood. The Holy Cross prelate was the first local Bengali bishop and then first local archbishop of the country's largest Catholic diocese until his death.

The Catholic Church has seen leadership changes as well.

Pope Francis appointed Oblate Bishop Bejoy N. D’Cruze of Sylhet as the archbishop of Dhaka, a major Catholic stronghold. Archbishop D’Cruze, 64, replaced Holy Cross Archbishop Patrick D’Rozario, 77, the country's first cardinal who served Dhaka since 2011.

The Diocese of Sylhet and Archdiocese of Chittagong are still waiting for new bishops.

Church courts controversy

Catholic and Protestant churches have waded into controversy in 2020.

In March, a court issued a ruling for the status quo of evangelical Chandrakanta Memorial Church in Barishal district. Local officials were accused of lending undue support to a faction during a long-running battle over ownership of the church that has some 2,500 members.

In September, hundreds of ethnic indigenous Catholics in Rajshahi district accused the diocese of an attempted eviction from land where they have lived for decades. Church officials defended the move as an attempt to regularize land in the Church’s care.

The arrest of a priest from Rajshahi on a rape charge on Sept. 29 rocked the Church. Father Prodip Gregory, 41, is accused of confining and raping a 14-year-old ethnic Santal girl. The priest has been denied bail twice and the case has made national and international headlines.

Humanity versus corruption

The pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in people.

Generous individuals and charities including Christian groups opened their hearts and lent support to extremely poor and needy people with food, cash and medical support. Muslims and Hindus joined hands to bury victims of Covid-19 regardless of faiths.

Covid-19 also fueled social divisions and ostracism. Hospitals refused to treat patients without coronavirus certificates, leading many to die for lack of treatment, and some hospitals preferred rich patients over the poor. Families and communities were accused of abandoning members.

The health ministry was blamed for mismanagement, negligence and unpreparedness. Police raids found two private hospitals designated for Covid-19 tests had issued thousands of fake certificates. A top government doctor, Sabrina Chowdhury, and Mohammad Shahed, a fraudster, were arrested and jailed for the scam.

Government officials and local politicians were arrested for stealing thousands of tons of rice meant for the poor. Journalists and critics were arrested and jailed for reporting on corruption and scams.

Natural disasters hit millions   

Located on the floodplains of the world's largest river delta system that empties into Bay of Bengal, natural disasters like cyclones and flooding are common adversaries for people of Bangladesh.

The extremely strong Cyclone Amphan and monsoon flooding hit millions in the coastal region of Bangladesh and India in May. Hundreds of people were killed and houses, property and crops worth billions of dollars were lost in the natural fury. The cyclone and flooding pushed millions of people in Bangladesh into extreme poverty, aid workers said.

Islamists on move

Radical and political Islamists have shown their heads again during the pandemic.

Tens of thousands of Muslims defied Covid-19 restrictions to attend the funerals of two leading radical Islamic figureheads — Maulana Zubayer Ahmad Ansari in April and Shah Ahamd Shafi in September.

More than a million Muslims marched in the capital Dhaka for days protesting anti-Islam cartoons by French magazine Charlie Hebdo and President Emmanuel Macron’s support. Islamists sought to lay siege to the French embassy in Dhaka and urged the government to ban French products and sever diplomatic ties with Paris.

In November, two Islamist political parties — Islami Andolon Bangladesh and Bangladesh Khilafat Majlish — declared strong opposition to a sculpture of the country’s founding leader Sheikh Mujbur Rahman in Dhaka and elsewhere, terming them “un-Islamic” and “unholy idol-worshipping.” It triggered a backlash from the ruling Awami League and secular groups.

In largely moderate and nominally secular Bangladesh, a possible rise of Islamists poses threats to a long-standing culture of pluralism and harmony.   

Peaceful, repressed politics

Usually boisterous politics was largely peaceful in 2020 thanks to Covid-19. The ruling Awami League continued to enjoy a monopoly in the absence of an effective opposition following a one-sided, allegedly rigged election of Dec. 30, 2018. Opposition parties including the Awami League’s main rival, Bangladesh National Party (BNP), have accused the government of authoritarianism and muzzling dissent, civil liberty and free speech.

Awami League dominance was evident in its clinching of a one-sided and largely rigged Dhaka City mayoral poll on Feb. 1.  

Unless the second spell of Covid-19 ends early next year, politics will likely be subdued as the Awami League, in power since 2009, keeps crushing opposition on the street and by state force. The trend is expected to continue until the national election in 2023.

Rape scourge, trampled rights and Rohingya

In October, tens of thousands rocked the streets of capital Dhaka and various parts of the country amid a scourge of brutal rapes. Rights groups reported 975 rapes and gang rapes from January to September this year.

The government changed the rape law and introduced death as the maximum penalty, but the move is unlikely to curb sexual violence unless laws are properly implemented and social, economic and political root causes are tackled.

The rights of ethnic and religious minorities were violated sporadically. Indigenous communities in rural, remote areas barely survived extreme hard times as they were largely deprived of government relief and food schemes.

In April and May, 30 incidents of violence occurred against religious minorities including false allegations of defaming Islam and Prophet Muhammad.

On Nov. 7, minority Hindus, Christians and Buddhists rallied in Dhaka to demand justice for attacks on religious minorities, mostly Hindus, on fabricated allegations of hurting religious sentiments of Muslims following blasphemous French cartoons.

Rohingya refugees made headlines for unexpected reasons including trafficking, robbery and violence. The most significant was Bangladesh’s move to relocate 1,642 refugees from camps in Cox’s Bazar to a remote silt island, Bhasan Char, on Dec. 3. The government aims to relocate 100,000 refugees to the island in the Bay of Bengal amid opposition from rights groups and aid agencies.

The year 2020 will go down in history as an unprecedented period that brought disasters for humanity but also great lessons. Whether we have learned anything good for the welfare of people around us will be our takeaways for the future.

Bangladeshi people including Christians won’t forget this unprecedented year.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official editorial position of UCA News.

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