We need to prioritize public health at every stage
It is not wrong to be over-prepared during a public health crisis. The Covid-19 crisis requires a sufficient stockpile of test kits, ventilators, personal protective equipment (PPE), hand sanitizers, facemasks, and hand gloves.
It is encouraging that the government has been consulting with companies at home and abroad to increase the supply of these vital materials. The government must facilitate the private sector by removing bureaucratic bottlenecks and providing the required fiscal support.
Across the world, countries are activating emergency legislation to deal with the pandemic. The US has activated the Defense Production Act to prioritize the production of ventilators and other items.
France’s Defense Innovation Agency has asked the private sector to offer technological, managerial, and adaptive solutions to protect the population, support patient care, develop testing capacity, monitor disease progression, and help limit stress during the pandemic.
The performance of the health ministry in Bangladesh leaves a lot to be desired. The health ministry activated the Communicable Diseases (Prevention, Control and Eradication) Act only on March 23 with retrospective effect.
It took an order from the High Court on March 18 to set the wheels into motion. The law should have been activated much earlier as the World Health Organization (WHO) was notified about the novel coronavirus on December 31, 2019.
The health minister has assured the public that there are sufficient stocks of PPE with the government. Despite this assurance, the gravity of the crisis demands further procurement of PPE to protect doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers, and all healthcare staff who are on the frontlines of the war against Covid-19.
Bangladesh needs to invest resources to expand testing on a mass scale. “Test, test, test” is the mantra coming from the WHO.
While test kit donations from abroad have increased our stockpile, Bangladesh should purchase as many test kits as possible on its own. We have the resources to invest and we should do so.
The delay in production of rapid test kits is concerning. Antibody screening can be a precursor to tests using real-time PCR kits. The US has recently approved antibody testing. The New York Times notes that “antibody testing eventually should give scientists a better sense of how widespread the infection is in the population.”
According to the South Asia Center in the Atlantic Council, Bangladesh should commit to testing at least 1% of its population for Covid-19.
Many countries are emulating the drive-thru test center model of South Korea. Bangladesh needs to consider mobile testing facilities in addition to public and private hospitals and labs across the country. National IDs, cellphone data, and email can be used to correspond with patients like in other countries.
There does appear to be a degree of stigma regarding Covid-19. Stigma can deter people from seeking tests because of the fear of reactions from their communities. Therefore, the government has to launch a campaign of testing on a mass scale and remove the stigma. That could well be the solution.
We need to prioritize public health to the utmost. Public health specialists need to advise the government on the nuances of the crisis. It is worth noting that the current education minister has a degree in public health from a top medical school and she can be made to lead a taskforce.
Telemedicine needs to be widely applied. Hospitals should deal with severe cases and not become pressurized to the extent of becoming breeding grounds for the virus.
Quarantine measures must be humane. The law enforcement agencies should be credited for enforcing a lockdown, which is a crucial hope in our effort to stem the disease. Nevertheless, human rights, such as the right to food, need to be respected. Food security is a vital part of the equation.
Economists believe lockdowns are in the best interest of long-term economic well-being, be it locally or globally. The government needs to put adequate effort in stimulus plans and then concentrate on a broad strategy to combat the disease using the best technology and healthcare facilities possible.
The UN Secretary General has described the situation as the greatest test since WWII. My grandparents’ generation did not even see a pandemic of this extent. The math models predicting casualties in Bangladesh are also worrying and point to the gravest threat since 1971.
We are in this together.
Umran Chowdhury works in the legal field.