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Dhaka Tribune

An overview of the scale of Bangladesh's Covid-19 crisis

The country has a health crisis in the making

Update : 31 Mar 2020, 08:40 PM

In a major report on Bangladesh and its handling of the Covid-19 crisis entitled “Defusing Bangladesh’s Covid-19 time-bomb,” the South Asia Center of Washington DC-based think tank the Atlantic Council has provided a useful overview of where things stand today in Bangladesh with respect to the crisis.

Bangladesh has a health crisis in the making.

The lack of preparation in the United States and Europe that has spawned the ongoing crisis there still exceeds the preparedness of developing countries such as Bangladesh, which will have to battle the Covid-19 pandemic with limited financial resources and a legacy of poor healthcare infrastructure, especially for the urban poor.

Already one of the most densely populated countries in the world, Bangladesh also has thousands of stateless Rohingya housed in sprawling refugee camps in the south-eastern region of the country, in conditions prime for rapid spread.

Given its proximity to China and a large migrant population living in severely affected countries such as Italy, Bangladesh’s Ministry of Health and Family Welfare should have taken preventative measures when the Chinese government first shared news of the deadly virus. Unfortunately, precious time was squandered.

After the first reported death in Bangladesh from Covid-19, there was a mass religious gathering in the southern part of the country attended by tens of thousands of people.

Such events have been discouraged by authorities but communications need to be clearer and more forceful to be effective.

Currently there is a 10-day nationwide holiday from March 26 to April 4, during which the army is enforcing social distancing across the nation.

Current situation

The Bangladeshi research institute spearheading the fight to test and detect coronavirus is the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), a body under the Ministry of Health.

The IEDCR has recommended that citizens avoid mass public gatherings.

Unlike in neighbouring Nepal where the army set up a quarantine facility in Kathmandu as per the World Health Organization’s (WHO) recommendation upon the first positive Covid-19 test, the handling of quarantine measures in Bangladesh was inadequate.

When the first batch of mass returnees arrived from China in February, they were all quarantined at the Ashkana Hajj Camp in Dhaka. The returnees complained about sub-par conditions, including poor hygienic conditions and being crammed in small spaces.

However, the authorities ignored the situation and the health risks it posed to those in quarantine. Subsequently, in mid-March when the second batch of foreign returnees — over 140 Bangladeshis evacuated from Italy — arrived, confusion ensued when they were taken to the same inadequate quarantine spot.

These returnees protested and were ultimately allowed to leave with the promise of “home quarantine.”

On March 18, tens of thousands of people gathered in Raipur in the southern district of Lakshmipur to pray “healing verses” from the Quran. This event was organized by an influential local religious leader who urged people to join this event, promising a way to be “free from the coronavirus.”

The same week, school holidays were announced to support the quarantine, but domestic tourist destinations such as the coastal areas of Chittagong and Cox’s Bazar were all bustling with people and activity.

On March 20, the Islamic Foundation allowed congregational prayers to go on albeit for a shortened length.

Such contradiction in policy guidance and lacklustre enforcement has wasted precious time for the government to shore up its limited public health system and to implement best practices for maximizing social distancing and minimizing community transmission of the novel coronavirus.

The impact on Bangladesh’s economy due to these missteps is likely to be significant.

The Asian Development Bank (ADB) estimates that export industries will suffer and the country will lose 1.1% of its gross domestic product (GDP) growth due to the pandemic.

The readymade garments sector which accounts for more than 80% of Bangladesh’s manufacturing income has already suffered a loss of $3 billion, as major export destinations such as the United States, United Kingdom, and European Union are cancelling orders.

In addition, foreign remittances representing over 5% of GDP (close to $17 billion in fiscal year 2019) will be affected, as half a million migrant workers have returned home since the outbreak.

The majority of these migrant workers were based in Middle Eastern countries which have been hit by declining oil prices.

Furthermore, daily wage labourers, such as rickshaw-pullers, are the hardest hit as the closure of schools and colleges have led to lower demand for their services.

For these workers — who survive hand to mouth daily — the consequences of quarantines and lockdowns, however medically necessary, are dire without robust government provision of food and supplementary income.

The report that these points were drawn from was written by Irfan Nooruddin and Rudabeh Shahid for the New Atlanticist. The full text of the report is available here.

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