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Bio-Power of Covid-19: Locating the Transformability of Bangladeshi Social Narratives by the Archaeology of Pandemics

  • Md. Masood Imran
  • Mahisun Binte Wahab Rashti
  • 1750-1757
  • Apr 13, 2024
  • Public Health

Bio-Power of Covid-19: Locating the Transform Ability of Bangladeshi Social Narratives by the Archaeology of Pandemics

Md. Masood Imran, Mahisun Binte Wahab Rashti

Department of Archaeology, Jahangirnagar University

DOI: https://dx.doi.org/10.47772/IJRISS.2024.803126

Received: 30 January 2024; Revised: 02 March 2024; Accepted: 08 March 2024; Published: 13 April 2024

ABSTRACT

This study examines the transform ability of social narratives through the archaeology of pandemics. The dynamics of knowledge-power relationship surrounding COVID-19 as an infectious disease, influenced individual bodies through the enactment of strict laws. Furthermore, this leverage shaped societal narratives through fear amidst crisis by challenging conventional norms. In-depth observation, close-ended one-to-one friendly chatting, and archival documents were used to collect the analytical data. Foucauldian idea of the archaeology of knowledge, sexuality and Agamben’s position ality on bio-power, were all extensively recycled to analyse the normative transfer ability of narratives due to the pandemic bio-power dimension. This research found that the understanding of the transform ability of social narratives has changed due to the hegemonic normative power of acceptance by self-reflexivity on memory journey and living self-experiences.

Keywords: archaeology, bio-power, self-reflexivity, pandemics and endemics, transform ability.

INTRODUCTION

Social narratives are the best examples to locate the changes during pandemic. Great issues always change the meaning of social narratives and patterns of living.  As an example, can be told, before and after independence from Pakistan in 1971, Bangladeshi people experienced a couple of ‘curfews’[1] because of military governments. The narratives changed during Covid 19, i.e., the ‘lockdown’ term took place instead of ‘curfew’. People found that there is an Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control, and Elimination) Act 2018, which overpowered the democratic government to control the people’s bodies. Agamben (2020) argues that “social distance” is the new concept of structuring society. Through such mechanisms, the concept of ‘normal’ has arisen within the administration, which people happily agreed upon as they accepted it. ‘Quarantine’ is another narrative, which is not new in Bangalee culture but has faded out for not being used within the commoner’s domain. British Colonial Power used this term as a bio-power against Women through the Contagious Diseases Act of 1868. Its social impact was found through the popular writer Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay’s famous Bangla novel “Srikanta”[2]. The quarantine situation was narrated in this manner –

“The ship is expected to arrive in Rangoon the next day between the hours of eleven to twelve; nevertheless, before daybreak, a sign of anxiety and excitement arose on the faces of all of the passengers. A very faint sound could be heard coming from all directions, Kerentin. Later I found out that the term is “quarantine”; hence, the government of Burma is being very cautious out of fear of the plague. On a hill around eight to ten miles outside of the city, several huts have been erected around a small area that is surrounded by a barbed wire fence; in this manner, all of the deck passengers were dumped off without discrimination. They must first survive being isolated for ten days then only they will be permitted to enter the city.”

During the global quarantine, as people around the world reflected on their experiences with pandemics, understanding how COVID-19’s impact on the body shapes social narratives and influences self-governance and societal norms became crucial to explore, given its significance as an emerging issue. In Bangladesh, the taboo surrounding discussions of sex is deeply rooted in cultural, religious, and societal norms that often prioritize modesty, traditional values, and family honour. As such, young individuals confront significant social barriers when attempting to engage in open conversations about sexuality and sexual health. Especially when it comes to young people, they are not merely passive recipients of adult norms and messages concerning sexuality rather are active agents who construct their own meanings and navigate the expectations imposed upon them, balancing societal demands with their personal desires, needs, and emotions. The main goal of this research is to locate how social narratives can control the body-subject through the observational experiences of the two authors. The second author’s lived experiences predominantly covered this aspect. At the end the paper examines the transformation of social narratives, transitioning from taboo to acceptance under the influence of COVID-19 over the body both through fear and governmentality. This analysis is integral due to the mechanisms of supplanting and rationalizing premodern norms within modern states.

In this paper, to explore the opinions of different interviewees we have used different ethnographic experiences keeping in mind the idea of public enlightenment by Boas (1899), who encouraged the production of knowledge through engaged anthropology (Lewis, 2001). Methodologically, it was self-exploratory and chatting with friends for a long. We tried to contact people with a long history of friendship with the interviewer. Friendship helps to make a space to discuss on interviewee’s personal space in detail due to in the close-ended one-to-one detail discussions, the interviewee opened up about her/his personal stories, and their statements became straightforward. While understanding norm ativity, the first case came out from the experience of the second author’s bosom friend. It was not a pre-decided ethnographic survey but rather was an outcome of a friendly chat where friendship-trust was the driving force. We are using her experiences in this paper with her permission without disclosing her identity. Similarly, other interviewees participated voluntarily and underwent systematic interviews, and as we were planning to go with their Covid-19 experiences for this research, we are using pseudonyms for all of them. Without going through an orthodox way of interviewing, we rather chose to go on an open-ended conversation to find out what they underwent during 2020 as the world was going through a crisis that it had no idea of getting rid of.

Theoretically, Foucauldian governmentalization of the body and bio-power is the prime analytical framework to analyse the transform ability of social narratives, along with understanding the changing phenomenon. The epidemic shows an increasing trend to utilise the crisis state as a normal model of administration by militarising affected regions. Using this technique, the government may immediately declare an emergency in all regions. “Social distance” and “Quarantine” are two concepts that structure society, establishing a rule of surrendering for the greater good. However, Agamben (2020) believes it is paradoxical; a rule demanding we surrender the good to preserve the good is as erroneous and contradictory as one suggesting sacrificing freedom to defend freedom. Through such mechanisms, the concept of “normal” has arisen within the administration and the process of fear which people happily agree through acceptance. The paper explores how fear, economic factors, and societal practices contribute to the emergence of the Neo-Normal in society.

The Neo-Normal formation in a society by Covid- 19’s Power Narrative Over Body

“Let me die a young man’s death not a free from sin tiptoe in candle wax and waning death not a curtain is drawn by angels borne ‘what a nice way to go’ death”

-Roger McGough (Let me Die a Young Man’s Death, 1993)

The poetry “Let me die a young man’s death” by Roger Mc Gough popped into my mind after trying to learn the experiences of the second author’s close friend during the COVID-19 pandemic which generated a culture of fear in 2020 by becoming synonymous with death. Sometimes fear makes the person fearless. In this context, fearlessness doesn’t signify overcoming COVID-19, but rather negotiating with the fearful norms associated with it. These norms exert a controlling influence over the body. Reverse action activated within the self. S/he started to think that s/he is living in the age of death. The situation triggered a reflexive response where individuals realized that death was imminent. Consequently, they sought to fulfill their desires before facing it. The fear of death at an early age pushed me to meet with different aspects of desire. A non-government organisation employee 23-years-old Leela would be an interesting example who is observed very closely as a friend. We found her to go with a similar mind scape. She panicked and became concerned for both her family and herself when the lock down was suddenly imposed in mid-March 2020. Survival became the ultimate issue to her.

After talking about a few issues related to the global crisis, especially while seeking her opinions on the strict rules imposed during COVID-19, a few interesting factors came up where she went through a rapid change of thoughts and decisions i.e., she had a different thought during March, but it gradually changed after August as she began to give up hope on overcoming this sinister situation. This could be the condition of the maximum of us including me, the second author, who thought we have reached our finishing line. Similar types of answers were obtained through interviews, revealing how COVID-19 has affected their lives and exerted control over them.

“When the lock down was imposed suddenly from mid-March on 2020, like everyone else I was also panicking and became concerned. The main goal became a game of survival as the only thing I could only think was the safety of my family and mine as it felt like no matter what we need to survive.” (Leela, Cox’s Bazar, 2021)

Leela’s answer is also not out of the ordinary but the thing that created a divergence was her experience and her contemplation during that time. As she felt suffocated after a period with the rules, she realised that she might not survive the pandemic and that it was the best time to explore her life. Although she was not adventurous, she still decided to explore different aspects of life among which she was involved in sexual relationships during a time when the whole world recommended staying 3ft apart from each other. The intriguing fact is that she engaged in sexual activities with different people. Basically, when the lock down was withdrawn, as a part of her job responsibility, she had to attend workshops and conducted couple of field surveys in different district despite the corona. During that away from home covid-19’s wild time, she found loneliness and encountered with couple of friendly colleagues who became very closes to share the personal space. Both became comfortable with each other. They felt a deadly environment surrounded them. Tomorrow might be the end day for them. They even tried alcohol to avoid that uncertain time. They took decision sarcastically to have sex for fulfilling the desire of life. She states,

“When the lock down was withdrawn, I had to attend workshops or go to the field for surveys despite the corona due to the requirement of my job in different districts, and there you meet few people who becomes your comfort zone while being away from home in a moment of crisis. During such a time I encountered with few with whom I was able to express my ideas comfortably. We also had similar presumptions and thus decided to have sex as we both didn’t want to get chained within commitments. I even tried alcohol. I didn’t have the courage for being committed and was a complete workaholic due to which the pandemic made me think of getting out of this cage and do whatever I want to do even if it is breaking the social norms as I don’t know if I’d survive.” (Leela, Cox’s Bazar, 2021)

However, the social value system in Bangladesh, it is quite unusual. They both wished to avoid being bound by commitments. Specially she didn’t have the courage for being committed and was a complete workaholic due to which the pandemic made her think of getting out of this cage and do whatever she want to do even if it is breaking the social norms as she doesn’t know if she’d survive.

Quarantine imposed control over body and mind and like Leela, we found similar resistance from Anupam (22). When self hood reached a decided position to death, ignorance replaced the virtue of fear. Lock down transformed his fear into ignorance. It pushed him to come to Dhaka from Rajshahi and started to live in a rented house with his girlfriend besides the University. The monotonous life of lock down time and the thought of remaining unemployed, death, and survival, have made him mentally ill. His positionality on his life was to live the rest of times on his own terms. He narrated his position ality as;

“How many months will I be able to live with this fear and keep playing the game of survival where I hear news of people (including my relatives) dying in the west? I felt perhaps this is the end and chose to leave home and lived with my girlfriend by renting a flat near my university. The monotony of life and the prospect of continued unemployment weighed heavily on me, exacerbating my mental distress amid thoughts of life and death.I wanted to live on my own terms.” (Anupam, Islamnagar, JU, Dhaka, 2021)

When he was asked whether his landlord has accepted the matter of him living together with his girlfriend as this concept has yet not been accepted. He replied,

 “At first the landlords were creating a fuss to rent us the flat. But gradually when many students returned from home like me and started to live together it gradually became normal to them. As a matter of fact, they were earning by renting us their flats in the pandemic, whereas many flats were empty if we go a bit further from our campus. Landlords in proximity to our campus have found themselves in a more favorable situation amid the COVID-19 crisis compared to landlords situated outside the campus area.

New normal social constructions came out in the realm of semi-conservative society of Bangladesh where people chose to step out of social norms. Here, the thought of ‘the end’ and ‘death’ emphasised and meant more to them rather than societal traditions. It was also crucial for us to determine whether the same narrative could be observed across all regions of Bangladesh. But through consecutive interviews it had been observed that the “live together” format could be found in areas near to university zones. Additionally, apart from Jahangirnagar University, we have encountered similar incidents where landlords rent their flats to unmarried couples, despite the prevailing social norms in Bangladesh. While it was previously challenging for unmarried couples to secure accommodation before the pandemic, the economic crisis brought about by COVID-19 has made it easier for them. On this context another interviewee named Tanjim (30) who works at a reputed news agency told us,

“It was being difficult for me to find a home as an unmarried couple. My girlfriend studies at a University in Gulshan. During the COVID pandemic, she found it impossible to rent a flat due to the exorbitant costs, especially considering her hostel was also closed down. During the pandemic, my flatmates left the apartment, leaving me with the financial burden. We chose to move in together both to share expenses and to maintain our relationship by being together. However, as an unmarried couple renting a flat, we faced societal stigma, which made it difficult to find accommodation. COVID-19 made it easier for us to rent a flat, as landlords were more concerned about our ability to pay rent rather than our marital status. I believe the economic crisis has led to a disregard for social norms and moral conduct.” (Tanjim, 30, Shewrapara)

Hence, the economic challenges faced by middle-class families during COVID-19 emerged as a significant issue. This led to a gradual acceptance of their circumstances, fostering a sense of submission among them. The situation has forced them into normalising this concept. According to Foucault, power did not forbid or eliminate extra-conjugal, non-monogamy sexualities; on the contrary, it encouraged their proliferation. The power structure did not impose restrictions on sexuality, despite its control over sexual behaviour. It expanded the numerous sexual expressions, chasing them along shaky analytic axes (Foucault, 1990). Also, contemporary Western societies were unique not because they repressed and censored sex but because they simultaneously subjected sexuality to endless debates and had a curious desire to learn about the mysteries of life and birth.

On the other hand, the thought of ‘the end’ and ‘death’ led some people to do the exact opposite. Many of them chose to lead their life religiously. Even people who used to challenge the norms continuously had a major change due to the impact of the pandemic. Among such people, I chose to interview Jafar (26), who always used to stand against norms and had always made statements about how people are blindly religious, and it seemed funny to him. He used to wear t-shirts, was a chain smoker, and had a great fascination with music but now he wears Panjabi and has quitted all his previous habits. The massive death threat made him pious. He submitted himself for having a heaven in after death. According to Jafar,

“Yes, I used to feel people and society had interpreted religion in a wrong way, but I never tried to know about the religion myself. As someone from a Muslim family it was common for my parents to yell at me for not praying and I used to ignore them. During the lockdown, being stuck at home gave me the scope to read the books and get an idea about Islam to find out its depth. Over time, my desire for knowledge intensified, especially as I witnessed people dying in various places. I found myself grappling with a lack of peace, consumed by a persistent fear of death and the potential loss of loved ones. At my mother’s suggestion, I began practicing Salat, and indeed, it became a source of tranquillity for me. Somehow, contemplating the concept of death helped me come to certain realizations. I was leading my life in a wrong way.”

Jafar is now more concerned about the punishments after death. He has changed his lifestyle and according to him, he is seeking Almighty’s forgiveness for his mistakes in the past. The matter of the afterlife and the uncertainty of life has changed many people like Jafar.

The Governmentality of Pandemics on Controlling the Body

“The government has implemented measures to halt the spread of the pandemic, and it is incumbent upon us to adhere to these regulations. It is for our well being. If someone does not understand it, s/he might impose a threat to the major spread of the disease within the country. So, beating them is quite normal.” – a conversation between the second author and her mother (age 53) on whether the steps taken by the government during the pandemic in 2020 i.e., making the wearing of masks mandatory, sudden lockdown, beating people for not wearing a mask is all right or not. This brought out the firm belief of a citizen on justifying the government’s act in order to stop the outbreak of the pandemic by accepting it. To her it is for our well-being. If someone does not understand it, s/he might impose a threat to the major spread of the disease within the country. She found to imposing the law is quite normal.

Besides this we had asked similar questions to more citizens between the age of 17- 65 who had similar observations and as a veteran citizen’s position on this issue is clearly indicates we are so used to living in continual crisis and emergencies that most of us don’t see our lives have become merely biological. We get such acceptance from a university first year student residing in Dhaka. We’ve named her Jaya, aged 18, who firmly believes in the necessity of enforcing strict laws. According to her, without such measures, individuals may fail to learn their lessons and behave as responsible citizens. In one of her statements, she emphasized,

“My mother used to beat me if I didn’t study properly. To save myself from her slaps I used to study properly and tried heart and soul for a good result. I achieved a GPA of 5 in my Board exams (HSC exam). Without her strict guidance, I wouldn’t have attained such a good result. It is sometimes necessary to be strict to get rid of the bad and create a good person. Government is also doing the same.” (Jaya, 18, Dhaka)

Interestingly, on the other hand, another studied case of Reza (25) a student from a public university in Bangladesh showed different attitude on the imposing of laws during the pandemic and sudden lock downs by the government.

“I do not agree in the imposing of laws honestly. The state cannot force me in wearing something I am not comfortable with or not understanding the concept of it. Being caged within a sudden lock down for months have had a really bad impact on mental health along with financial circumstances. While everyone was concerned about the outbreak of the disease no one reconsidered to think about my mental impact. Even I do not think without threats and fear we were able to make people understand why the lock down and social distancing concept had arisen.” (Reza, 25, Manikganj)

According to Reza, the state cannot force him in wearing something. He identified a communication gap between the government and the public in conveying the concepts of lock down and social distancing effectively to the people.

Here, ethical point of view to rationalise the lock down law normatively could be observed massively. Within our interviews we found very rare cases like Reza, Leela and Anupam who tried to break out from normalizing the government’s power over the body. Leela and Anupam fell under which Agamben states as the bio-power of the pandemics whereas Reza escaped from being dominated under ethical or societal normativism. In this case, Agamben (1998) argued, the fear of death doesn’t unite people but rather makes them blind. A virus or organisms control the body due to the prevailing fear (Walsh, 2004). He (2020) also argued that biological conditions occupy human life in such a way that they get habituated to such situations and tend to believe it as normal. But viruses such as COVID-19 has reduced people’s life which makes them sacrifice their freedom and convict themselves to live in a state of fear. Whereas Foucault tries to emphasise the control a government has within the people, and how it controls their life of them, Agamben (1998) tries to elaborate on the state of control as he believes the sovereign power mainly is dominant because of the natural life. It means, not only the Government but also a virus that cannot be seen with the naked eye, has full power to control a whole population, a country, or the whole world.  As self-conscious and self-awarded agencies of the social leading class, the lock down situations were rationalized to the university-going students of Bangladesh. Both the senior citizens and university students were found to be a submissive body who were welcoming the government’s regulatory control over the body. These modern state citizens became a hegemonic soul. Although, in the cases of Leela and Anupam, the narratives changed and despite COVID-19 being the dominant character could not bind them within the ‘normal’ confinement. Rather these two people chose to break free from the normative and during such a crucial period they wanted to live on their own terms.

CONCLUSION

‘Quarantine’ and ‘lock down’ have been imposed vertically over the body by regulatory instruments since colonial times in the Indian subcontinent. During Covid-19 in Bangladesh, we observed a horizontal rationalization of these measures by social narratives, normatively shaping public perceptions, as discussed above in discourse. Syncretic cultural practices have always been found among the Bangalee society along with religiously fluidity. But the dramatic transformation of narrative came out during the Covid 19, when the ‘living together’ and ‘sex’ concepts tended to become somehow normalised, which was socially unacceptable before the pandemic in Bangladesh. Sex is generally a taboo in Bangalee society, and before marriage, it is totally prohibited. Even love affairs are not enough to engage in sex before marriage rather, marriage gives the only license to have sex legally. Social values became different after Covid 19. The social narratives have shifted noticeably, with field observations indicating a notable absence of the gossip that was once commonplace before the onset of Covid-19. On the other hand, we also found people going through a shift in their ideological changes as they seek peace and hope towards religion. The matter of death made them think about the ‘afterlife’, which made them feel life in this world is nothing but a test, and the main reason for living here is because they have been sent here to serve the Almighty. Death and fear due to Covid 19 have overpowered the social narratives and made people submissive. Even the governance and control of a body by the government became normal and easy during time of distress. Thus, the transform ability of social narrative became normative in the present society.

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FOOTNOTE

[1] Curfews: meaning people are bound to stay at home in designated period by the order of supreme power.

[2] Sharat Chandra Chattopadhyay, শ্রীকান্ত, (Srikanto) Vol.2, Chapter-4, (Calcutta: Gurudas Chattopadhyay & sons, 1918), The Bangla version was like this: “পরদিন বেলা এগার-বারটার মধ্যে জাহাজ রেঙ্গুন পৌঁছিবে…তবে ইহারা শহরে প্রবেশ করিতে পায়।”

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