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Coronavirus: Failure at front-line

  • Published at 08:19 pm March 31st, 2020
Coronavirus Zakir
File Photo: International flight passengers exit the international arrivals terminal of Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport on Tuesday, January 28, 2020 Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Inadequate logistics, preparations, initiatives at airports helped spread of Covid-19

Airports and a screening of incoming travellers are the first line of defence against the spread of Covid 19.

But Bangladesh moved to shut down airports and impose travel restrictions only recently.

The action came days after a huge chunk of returnees had already entered Bangladesh, passing through clearly lax screening at airports.

When many countries went for a total lockdown, Bangladesh continued flights to and from four countries – the UK, China, Hong Kong and Thailand – from March 21 till Saturday.

The country on Sunday, however, announced a halt to all flights, except those related to China – to and from Bangladesh till April 7, amid the coronavirus pandemic. However, cargo flights are exempted from the ban.

Meanwhile, till April 15 international flights will not operate to and from 10 countries.

The countries are Bahrain, India, Kuwait, Malaysia, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Turkey and the UAE.

Lax screening at airports

Screenings at airports were noticeably lax ever since the outbreak of Covid-19.

Bangladeshi migrant workers from different countries started rushing back to the country once coronavirus began to proliferate in China in late December.

However, the airport authorities were still continuing with their lax measures.

The country had seven thermal scanners in Bangladesh, but only one of them – installed at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport – was functional.

Airport officials, due to the lack of facilities, had to screen passengers by using hand-held temperature scanners in order to quarantine them.

Later, the authorities installed a new scanner at Shah Amanat International Airport in Chittagong on March 10.

Self quarantine helped spread the virus?

It was a positive initiative taken by Bangladesh when it put 312 Bangladeshi nationals, brought back from China's Wuhan, on a 14-day quarantine at Ashkona camp in Dhaka on February 1.

But afterwards, it allowed most returnees to go home and follow “home quarantine,” creating a haphazard situation and risking the spread of infection across Bangladesh.

People directed to follow home quarantine were found nonchalantly moving around in their neighborhoods, as reported by Dhaka Tribune correspondents.

The situation turned so grave that the government had to engage military personnel to visit houses to check whether the returnees were keeping themselves in home quarantine.

Since January 21, a total of 665,013 people have returned from abroad, but only 53,442 of them have been home quarantined, as shown by statistics from the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s personal physician Dr ABM Abdullah said the authority was not prepared to face such situations and it was a difficult time to tackle conditions because over 600,000 expatriates had returned at a time.

He noted that people were also flouting the rules and government directions, which was unexpected. However, the government was not prepared to quarantine them all especially since it did not have a huge space at its disposal. 

But he claimed that the government took a spontaneous decision and got a positive outcome by enforcing the rule with a stern hand. Thanks to that, the rate of those affected by the virus is now lesser than in other countries.

He expects that if the situation remains unchanged for the next two weeks, then the risks will be reduced.

Dr Mujibur Rahman, head of the department of medicine at Dhaka Medical College Hospital (DMCH), said the returnees, disobeying the quarantine rules, had helped spread the virus at community level.

Dr Shahriar Sajjad, medical officer at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport, said as most of the returnees had disobeyed the rule, the airport authorities had now decided not to allow anyone to enter the country without a valid certificate stating that they are Covid-19 negative.

Authorities admit failure

In a conversation with Dhaka Tribune, high officials of the government acknowledged that in the initial stages there had been inadequate logistics support and medical equipment for properly checking returnees amid the coronavirus outbreak.

Acknowledging the lax screening of returnees at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport in Dhaka, Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh (CAAB) Chairman Air Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman said if the government had suspended all flights at the initial stage, it would have brought about a positive situation now.

“Even though delayed, we [airport authority] are now getting support from the Health Ministry,” said CAAB chairman.

He said the civil aviation authorities had requested the government to increase the period of  suspension of flights to manage the Covid-19 situation properly.