Bangladesh’s Coming COVID-19 Catastrophe

 Bangladesh’s Coming COVID-19 Catastrophe

People shop at a market ahead of Eid-al Adha in Dhaka, Bangladesh, Friday, July 16, 2021.

The country withdrew restrictions for a week to celebrate Eid festival. Health experts now fear that the situation may spiral out of control in the weeks ahead.

Mizanur Rahman paid double for a seat in a night coach bus from Rajbari, a district in central Bangladesh, to return to Dhaka city after celebrating the Eid-al Adha festival. He was supposed to have two seats for himself to maintain social distance in the public transport as per the government rules.

But after boarding on the bus, Rahman found that a passenger had occupied the seat that should have remained empty. In fact, no seat on the bus was empty.

“The bus conductor told me that I had to pay four times more than regular fair if I wanted the seat beside me empty. This is unreasonable because the government allowed them to raise bus fare by 60 percent to keep the bus half empty,” Rahman told the Diplomat.

By the time he reached Daulatdia ferry terminal, where buses from the southern districts cross the Padma river on ferries, there was around a five-kilometer long traffic jam. Thousands of people had flocked there to cross the river to return to the capital city. It was a day after Eid and the government had announced that it would go back to a stricter lockdown from the next day.

Like the bus Rahman boarded, most of the buses stuck in Daulatdia were overcrowded. Besides the public transports, people of all ages were rushing to get on the ferry in smaller vehicles to reach Dhaka by dawn. Only a few of them were wearing masks, and social distancing was non-existent.

The situation from the evening until dawn at Daulatdia was remarkable for a country that is battling its worst wave of COVID-19. But this picture was a common sight everywhere from public transportation and shopping malls to cattle markets ahead of the Eid holiday.

When The Diplomat asked the police in charge at Daulatdia why they are not checking if the buses followed health regulations, police officer Anisuzzaman said, “This is none of our concern. Please talk to the higher authority.”

As the third wave of COVID-19 surges in Bangladesh, the country averaged around 12,000 cases and 200 deaths per day in July. On July 12, the day before Bangladesh announced it would withdraw its lockdown for a week for Eid-al Adha, the second biggest festival of the Islamic faith, the country recorded its highest daily case count: 13,768 new coronavirus infections.ADVERTISEMENT

Still, the authorities eased COVID-19 restrictions to allow people to go shopping and travel to the villages, and permitted cattle markets to open to sell sacrificial animals to be slaughtered on Eid.

According to the country’s posts and telecommunications minister, Mustafa Jabbar, more than 10 million SIM users left Dhaka for villages before the Eid festival.

Just a day after Eid, when the new lockdown was coming into effect, nearly half a million people like Mizanur Rahman rushed back to Dhaka. But more than 9 million SIM users will be still returning in the following days, despite the lockdown.

Public health experts said the authorities’ handling of lockdown in Bangladesh was bizarre.  Many fear that the mishandling of the lockdown, including its random withdrawals and implementations, will lead Bangladesh to disaster in the coming weeks.

“When the restriction was relaxed, a lot of people went out of their homes. They were all over the place, including the shopping malls, cattle markets, offices, mass transports, and eventually travelled from Dhaka to the villages,” said Dr Mohammad Shahidullah, chairman of Bangladesh’s National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC) on COVID-19. “During this free-mixing, everyone didn’t adhere to the health precautions. A large number of people didn’t wear masks.”

“Around 80 percent of our infection cases are Delta variants. Since this variant is more infectious, it spread more during this week. We will realize its impact in the next one month. The curve was supposed to come down by now. But if it doesn’t, the weeklong relaxation of the restrictions will be responsible for that,” the NTAC chairman told The Diplomat.

Both COVID-19 infections and deaths were indeed on the decline into the third week of July. But since July 24, a day after the lockdown resumed, the curve began to rise again.

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