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Bangladesh remains on knife edge two months into Covid-19 crisis

  • Published at 10:50 pm May 5th, 2020
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Government gradually increasing testing, enforcing social distancing and cushioning economy with stimulus package

Two months after the first cases of Covid-19 were reported in the country, life has slowed to a crawl. Concerns that the number of infections could spike at any time remain among the public.

Bangladesh instituted a soft lockdown, dubbed a general holiday, to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2. A total 11,000 cases of Covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, have been confirmed in the country, with 183 deaths and 1,403 recoveries.

About 12% of Covid-19 tests have come back positive.

The Bangladesh government began working on issues surrounding the disease from late January, safely bringing back hundreds of Bangladeshis from China, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak.

The first batch from Wuhan, where the disease originated, returned to Bangladesh on February 1. A total of 316 nationals who were on board the flight were put in quarantine for 14 days, but none showed any symptoms of Covid-19 and all tested negative for the infection.

However, the crisis took on more complex overtones when thousands of Bangladeshis started returning from Europe and America, particularly from Italy, Germany and the US. 

Instead of putting the returnees in institutional quarantine, the government asked them to self-quarantine at home for 14 days. This turned out to be a mistake as many flouted the guidelines and roamed about outdoors in cities and villages, unable to grasp the severity of the situation.

Arrivals from overseas continued even after a ban was imposed on international flights on March 14. Data compiled by the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) show a total of 679,400 people had returned as of yesterday, but only 197,811 people were put in quarantine – both home and institutional. 

Non-compliance with health advisories and social distancing strategies also continue to be common phenomena in Bangladesh, as hundreds of people have been found roaming the streets during the government enforced shutdown since March 26.

When the first cases were reported on March 8, Bangladesh was busy with preparations to celebrate the birth centenary of Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman on March 17. Within a few days, however, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina took the bold decision to keep the grand celebrations in abeyance. 

She also asked people to avoid large gatherings, but the advice was unheeded in different parts of Bangladesh.

All educational activities were suspended on March 17.

On March 24, with the number of cases surging, the government announced public holidays from March 26 to April 4. Passenger transports were allowed on March 24-25 and thousands of people travelled across the country in crowded vehicles, increasing the risks of a spread of the virus.

The number of cases spiked in April despite the government-announced shutdown, as people continued to flout directives and law enforcement agencies struggled to keep them at home.

Thousands of readymade garment workers were called to join work on April 5 even though the holidays were extended. These people returned to Dhaka, Gazipur and Narayanganj without following government guidelines, using overcrowded ferries and goods transports.

These people then returned home as factories announced the extension to the closures. The results are clear - Narayanganj, which is an industrial hub, now hosts the second highest cases after Dhaka at over a thousand.

In another breach of government directives, tens of thousands of people surged to the funeral prayers for a leader of an Islamist party in Brahmanbaria in mid-April.

When asked, both the home minister and health minister expressed their helplessness in trying to deal with the incident. 

Whole of Bangladesh at risk

The healthcare authorities recorded a sharp spike of coronavirus across the country on April 17, prompting the Health Affairs Ministry to declare the entire country as at risk of Covid-19.

The decision came after the health authorities confirmed that community transmission had already begun in Bangladesh.

The government then enforced tougher rules, decreeing punishment for anyone found outside their home after 6pm. Prayers at mosques were also restricted.

More than 395 upazilas under 49 districts are under full lockdown, while partial lockdown has been imposed in 17 upazilas under 12 districts.

Rangamati is the only district that is now free from Covid-19 cases, thanks to the prompt response by local administration.

The government has allowed readymade garments and some businesses to start operations from late April. Just before the two-month mark, the government on Monday announced the fifth consecutive extension of the shutdown, this time till May 16. They also declared that businesses would be opened in phases. 

With the exception of educational and religious institutions, everything is set to be opened on a limited scale during the shutdown.

Meanwhile, sector-based stimulus packages were offered to help industries recovery economic losses, while an insurance and honorarium was declared for front line fighters.

Will cases spike this month?

A projection by a panel of experts under the Health Ministry shows the coronavirus pandemic in Bangladesh is likely to peak in mid-May, taking the infection rate to a much higher level at the end of the month.

The projection is that the cases may start declining at the end of June next, but it is unlikely to be eliminated anytime soon.

The total number of coronavirus cases will increase by around five times at the end of May and the death rate will also go up accordingly, according to the projection following the classical SIR (Susceptible-Infectious-Removed [recovered + death]) model.

About 1,500-2,000 people may die if the virus keeps on wreaking havoc, according to the projection.

Since April 1, the rate of daily infections has been on the rise in Bangladesh because of the expansion of testing facilities. Just yesterday, Bangladesh recorded the highest single day rise in infections with 786 cases, data compiled by 33 testing laboratories now in operation – 17 in Dhaka and the rest in districts – shows.  

Countrywide mapping, coordination and strict implementation essential

Experts told Dhaka Tribune that Bangladesh failed at all stages of the outbreak of the disease because of a lack of a proper planning and preparation, as well as massive coordination gaps between the authorities.

“Failure to ensure home-quarantine for returnees was the first failure, while keeping transport open for a couple of days helped the virus spread out across the country despite the announced public holidays to enforce social distancing. Third, the reopening of readymade garments and poor implementation of lockdown can also be blamed,” said Dr Tarek Hossain, a former program coordinator for UNICEF in Bangladesh.

 “The steps taken by the government for the lockdown seems like they would be enough, only if we could have ensured proper implementation,” said Professor Dr Nazrul Islam, a veteran virologist and former vice chancellor of BSMMU.

He also said it was too early for Bangladesh to ease the shutdown right now.

However, during a talk show on Monday, State Minister of Foreign Affairs Shahriar Alam said many countries have relaxed the lockdowns despite having much higher death tolls than Bangladesh.

The National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC) recently recommended the government identify heavily infected, medium infected and light infected areas to aid with containment of the disease as done in India, said NTAC head Dr Md Shahidullah.

He added that easing the lockdown without strict enforcement of social distancing measures was risky.