So a funny thing happened to me while on a trip to Bangladesh. I got bitten by something. Something so small, I didn’t even notice at the time. My foot started swelling and after a few fevered days, I called a doctor who diagnosed cellulitis.
Cellulitis? Isn’t that some insignificant source of worry for western women - porridgy thighs? Nonsense, I decided, while obligingly swallowing his prescribed antibiotics. As soon as the fever subsided, I carried on.
Carrying on meant visiting slums and refugee camps in Dhaka, Cox’s Bazaar and Chittagong. Then my foot turned bulbous and purple-black as an aubergine. It started to feel like torture: a combination of red hot steel bands and a sledgehammer smashing against the ankle bone. My companion took an executive decision, cut short my Chittagong stay, bullied us onto the next flight to Dhaka, and got me into the city’s swishest five star hospital, The Apollo.
Within minutes, I had the head plastic surgeon give me a diagnosis in a glance - cellulitis.
And, no, it’s not some made up local word. And it’s got nothing to do with fat thighs. It’s a skin infection which if ignored (as I had done), can lead to horrible complications (which I now had).
So let’s cut to the chase. There’s been a fair amount of pain, including more injections, drips, and needles than I care to recall. There’s been some surgery, a great deal of - sorry to use the word - pus, and a little dollop of self pity and self blame. But there’s also been a bucket full of drugs, along with an army of gentle-fingered nurses, courteous customer care relations officers, caterers, dieticians, cleaners, nursing assistants, not to mention several daily visits by the top plastic surgeon and his entire team of young Turks.
The Bangladeshis are an exquisitely soft mannered people, who will do anything to make a guest welcome. But all this attention has come courtesy of my wonderful foreign insurance plan. I haven’t had the bill yet (I’m typing this while hooked up to IVs in my super deluxe single cabin at the hospital) but my educated guess is that my daily costs here have far exceeded the monthly wage of Bangladesh’s average garment worker, shipbreaker, or rickshaw puller.
The level of care here is far superior to anything I’ve had from a Western hospital. It’s also beyond the means of 99% of the citizens of this country.
I’ve had long days in bed to reflect on how differently I’ve been treated by a system inaccessible to the kind of people I’ve met in recent days: the young slum mother-to-be whose prenatal care consisted of laying on her family’s single charpoy in a muddy alley while a local health worker pressed her tummy; the hollow-eyed rickshaw puller who told me that his daily wages couldn’t always cover the food he needed for his family, let alone medicines for emergencies; the mother in the refugee camp shouting for me to look at her 10-year-old son who had what looked like a cooked chicken wing where his leg should have been. He’d been run over by a car and had never received treatment. As a Rohingya, the boy was the most invisible of Bangladesh’s considerable number of invisibles.
At independence in 1971, Bangladesh was famously called a “basket case”. But inch by inch, the hard work of its people is beginning to make a difference; they struggle on the land, work for the remittances that are now nine times more than what this country gets in aid, and its women have built up a national garment sector industry. And despite its government - not because of it - the country has climbed up the poverty indicator ladder in many ways.
Yet the situation remains that the rich and privileged (aka myself) can live in a first class bubble here, while the majority of the people here, who should be able to claim fundamental human rights here through citizenship, can not.
I’m happy to have been saved from all the horrible complications that the good doctors here say would have been my fate if I’d left the infection untreated for another few days. But I’m all too aware that it’s nothing but an accident of geography and birth that led to me - for the second time in my life - not dying from an insect bite.