Time for reckoning

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It is now 2 months since Bangladesh officially detected its first patient infected with the novel coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that surfaced in Wuha, China last December.  Since that first case on March 8, that was followed 10 days later with the reports of the first death, including the latest numbers from Friday, we find the total number of infected has reached 13,134, while 206 people have died from Covid-19, the name given to the disease associated with the virus.

Rather frustratingly, what the country has not yet been able to establish is just how widespread the disease might be among the general population, which could allow for some estimates on when the caseload might peak, and thus allow the government to plan accordingly.

“We still do not know when Bangladesh will reach the peak of infections,” said IEDCR principal scientific officer ASM Alamgir.

The principal reason for this has been an inability to ramp up our testing capacity to the requisite level. To be sure, the government did, from the last week of March onwards, start increasing testing, and has kept on increasing the number till now, with pledges to keep doing so. But the abysmal number of tests done in March itself, and limitations to how much it can increase week by week since, meant we were destined to be always playing catch up.

Towards the end of this week, the authorities managed to get the number of tests done per day up close to the 6,000 mark - a significant improvement on the roughly 150 or so that were being done in late March. But it still meant that as of May 4, only 87,641 people had been tested in the country, according to the latest WHO Situation Report . Which is hardly a significant number, in a population of 160 million.

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 was compounded to an untold degree when thousands of Bangladeshis started returning from Europe and America, particularly from Italy, Germany and the US. The most critical incident during this period was the ‘jailbreak’ of sorts staged by 142 returnees from Italy at the peak of the epidemic there, who refused to stay at the Ashkona Hajj Camp and after a chaotic day, actually left. This may have been one of the incidents that possibly contributed to an invisible first wave of infections in Bangladesh in March itself, that was missed due to inadequate testing. That evening, after the rowdy returnees had left, the Army was deployed at the camp to ensure quarantine. But it was a bit like bolting the stable after the horse had left.

Instead of tracing the returnees and putting them in institutional quarantine, the government could only issue despairing requests for them to self-quarantine at home for 14 days. This turned out to be a mistake as many (and not just this group of returnees, but rather anyone seeing no oversight) will have 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. But more importantly the number jumped thanks to increased testing.

A pandemic offers many points for comparison and contrast. Comparative data showed that the infections in Bangladesh were increasing faster than the USA, India and Pakistan among other countries, at a similar stage of the outbreak, that is, two months.

The first COVID-19 case was detected in the USA on January 20. By the end of 60 days, its confirmed cases were 9,415 with 150 deaths. The country was also ahead in terms of testing, although not by that much, as 124,258 people were tested in 60 days in the USA. The Trump administration’s failure to mount a robust response  early on has been held up already of course, as one of the main reasons why the US has ended up as the worst sufferers of the pandemic.

The USA was on 108th day on Wednesday since the first infections while by the end of May 5, the country’s number of COVID-19 patients rose to 12,38,083 with 72,285 deaths.

India’s first COVID-19 case was detected on January 30 and by the end of 60 days, the country detected 979 cases with 25 deaths after testing nearly 30,000 people.

India was on 98th day on Wednesday since the first infections and so far the country confirmed 49,436 cases with 1,695 deaths.

Pakistan’s first COVID-19 case was detected on February 26 and by the end of 60 days, the country detected 11,155 cases with 237 deaths after testing 131,365 people.

Pakistan was on the 72nd day on Wednesday registered 22,550 cases and 526 deaths.

In any case, the government this week issued an order allowing re-opening of shops and markets in the country from May 10 ‘on a limited scale’.

It came a day after Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced that they have decided to reopen shops and markets closed by the COVID-19 pandemic ahead of the Muslim religious festival Eid-ul-Fitr which marks the end of the Islamic holy month of Ramadan that began here on April 25.

Abdul Latif Bakshi, spokesman of the Ministry of Commerce, in a statement said shops and markets could remain open from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. local time. He said the decision to reopen shops and markets on a limited scale has been made to help people better pass the holy month of Ramadan and have preparations for Eid.

The country will most likely will celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr on or around May 24 based on the sighting of the new moon.

The decision to reopen shops and markets came days after thousands of the country's readymade garment or RMG factories resumed operations amid experts' warnings of a potential new surge in COVID-19 infections.

This will not affect the holiday linked to the lockdown that was earlier extended to May 16.

How to come out

The Directorate General and Health Service has issued technical guidelines in order to reopen businesses, educational institutions, public transportation, and passenger flight services amid the coronavirus outbreak in the country. The guidelines have been issued to prevent and control spread of Covid-19.

Those come following the government's decision to resume economic activities in the country on a limited scale during the ongoing coronavirus situation. The technical guidelines have been published on the website of the DGHS. According to the guidelines, railway stations need to keep protective equipment such as masks and disinfectants, and screen all passengers for high temperatures at entry points.

The authorities concerned need to keep the trains clean and disinfect those regularly. Staffers must be trained in this regard.

Authorities concerned of bus stations must also plan during this crisis, ensuring there are enough protective equipment and disinfectants at the stations and all staffers are aware of Covid-19.

As per the guideline, an emergency area will have to be established at bus stations and all passengers must be screened by an infrared thermometer. The authorities must regularly keep the stations clean so that the disease cannot spread further.

Similar instructions have also been given to educational institutions. They will give trainings to their employees in this regard and arrange masks, disinfectants and non-contact thermometer and other equipment.

All business institutions and other establishments also have to follow the guidelines.

  • Time for reckoning
  • Vol 36
  • Issue 44
  • DhakaCourier

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