Bangladesh’s Coming COVID-19 Catastrophe  

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Bangladesh’s Coming COVID-19 Catastrophe  

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.

Bangladesh’s Coming COVID-19 Catastrophe  

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

Credit: AP Photo/Mahmud Hossain Opu

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.

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.

From 6,364 cases and 166 deaths reported on July 23 when the lockdown resumed, on July 25, both deaths (228) and cases (11,291) increased significantly. During this timeframe, the country also witnessed deaths with COVID-19 symptoms outpace confirmed fatalities, suggesting the true death count from COVID-19 could be substantially higher.

On July 26, Bangladesh notched new records in terms of both daily cases (15,192) and deaths (247).

“Our lockdowns were never implemented properly. In Bangladesh, the idea of lockdown and its necessity has become a joke. We are imposing and withdrawing lockdowns randomly at our will,” said public health expert Dr. Abu Jamil Faisel.

“The opening up for Eid festival was very unwise. Because of these random openings and restrictions, the lockdown has become meaningless and we will begin to feel the impact in a few days. We have already seen the infection rate rising by 2 percent.” Faisel predicted an alarming situation by the end of July and in August.

“I am personally frightened if we are getting to the level of India,” the public health specialist added.

Taufique Joarder, vice chairperson of Public Health Foundation, Bangladesh, however, wants to focus more on why Bangladesh had to opt for a lockdown at all, when it could avoid this surge instead.

“Lockdown is the last resort. You didn’t need to go for the lockdown if you could close the border [with India] on time,” Joarder said. “We knew about the new variant in India from the beginning of this year. The Delta variant was not identified back then yet, but we realized there must be something wrong in India. We realized there was going to be an explosion in India that truly happened.

“Bangladesh should have shut the border back in January/February. But we closed the border in April. By then the Delta variant already entered Bangladesh. All of this indicates that we were not prepared.”

Bangladeshi public health experts believe that due to the authorities’ “playful” implementations and withdrawals of lockdown, the curve is spiking once again when it should be coming down.

“We go for lockdown after exploring all other avenues and trying every other step. Lockdown is the last resort. But our policymakers make mistakes in every step, and then they randomly announce lockdown,” Joarder said.

When Bangladesh announced a country-wide lockdown last April, Joarder said they advised the government to do genomic surveillance and implement area-based lockdowns when Delta variant was yet to be found in Bangladesh. “We said please do not drain energy like this. You are fatiguing people and damaging the economy. The people cannot take lockdown for more than a week.”

All public health experts, however, are not on the same page about the necessity of lockdown in Bangladesh’s current condition. “Lockdown is an effective way. I don’t think people are realizing this,” Faisel told The Diplomat.

But the experts do agree on one thing: Thanks to the authorities’ failure to understand the seriousness of a lockdown, Bangladesh may have to pay a hefty price in the coming weeks.