Bangladesh: Feral Cats and Social Indicators

This post first appeared at National Geographic, and references “Feral Cats and Social Indicators”, my latest piece at The New York Times’ Latitude blog

The photo you see above is of an adorable stray cat that’s living like a squatter at Bangladesh’s biggest children’s hospital.

The kitty could be called adorable, if a little standoffish. It’s also something of a scourge: Cats shouldn’t be allowed to roam the open halls and wards of a hospital, certainly not one treating vulnerable newborns.

My most recent piece for the New York Times’ Latitude blog looks at a terrible attack that one such stray made on a six-day-old infant, and how such incidents deflect attention from the strong gains Bangladesh is making in terms of health and development.

The steady social progress of countries like Bangladesh is often unnoticed by visitors and short-time expatriates. We see much of what’s obviously wrong, but we often lack the perspective to compare today’s conditions with the 1970s and 80s — when most Bangladeshis, Indians, and Pakistanis were born. (Another perspective we’re missing is the rural one: With the exception of a few foreign aid workers, missionaries, and academics, not many outsiders have anything close to a feel for life outside the cities – where most Bangladeshis, Indians, and Pakistanis actually live.)

It’s a point I hear a lot when speaking with my colleagues in India and Bangladesh. These are hard-core public-service journalists who make their careers exposing the human costs of corruption, prejudice, and bad governance. In private, however, they’re anything but pessimistic about the ultimate trajectory of their respective countries.

Here’s a sample from my Times piece:

Last month there was an extraordinary attack at the Dhaka Children’s Hospital. One of the dozens of stray cats that call the hospital home reportedly walked into a neonatal ward, mounted a bed where a six-day-old girl was receiving phototherapy treatment for jaundice and tried to take her as prey. According to the Daily Star, the cat had pulled the newborn off her bed and onto the floor, and dragged her partway to the ward’s open door before anyone noticed.

Not unlike Bangladesh itself, this 500-bed pediatric hospital provides the setting for both eye-popping outrages against human dignity and also unheralded social progress. Over the last two decades, Bangladesh’s poverty rate has fallen from 59 percent to 40 percent. The country remains a hard place to live in, but on most days its people successfully navigate a minefield of destitution, corruption, ignorance and maladministration. It’s when they don’t that we read about it in the newspapers.

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