With a virus like the SARS-CoV-2, we need to be prepared for the absolute worst at all times
The harrowing and heart-wrenching scenes from India have shocked the world. But if anything, the pandemic has just shown us how interconnected the world really is. For a country with such close historic and diplomatic ties with Bangladesh, not to mention the fifth-largest land border, we can only assume that Bangladesh will be part of the collateral damage.
Spreading across borders
Let’s address the most immediate issue first. The Indian variant B.1.617 has been dubbed the “double mutant” because of two key mutations in the spike of the virus. Even with travel restrictions, multiple tests, and quarantine, infections can still leak out; and if a traveller has come from somewhere the virus is very prevalent, they have a higher chance of bringing the virus with them.
Moreover, the more infections a country has, the greater the probability of a new variant to emerge. The main concern is that new mutations could render existing vaccines ineffective. According to Prof Sharon Peacock, director of the Covid-19 Genomics UK consortium: “The way to limit viral variants emerging in the first place is to prevent the virus replicating in us.” However, only 10% of India’s populations has been vaccinated with a mere 2% having received the second dose.
Officers from IEDCR have already announced that the Indian variant has been detected in in the samples, and there is definitely the possibility of more unknown/unreported cases.
Even though air connectivity with India remains suspended and land routes will be closed for two weeks, Bangladesh has several river and sea ports connecting it with India, most of which are open despite the fact that India is facing a deadly second wave. On top of that, Bangladesh has continued trade and commerce with India using some ports and land vehicles throughout the lockdown. Hence, the border is still very porous and there is scope for further entry of the virus.
Bangladesh experienced relatively lower infection rates in the last two weeks compared to March and early April; this would have provided the perfect time to vaccinate as many people as possible and keep the rates low.
However, while dealing with their own Covid crisis at home, India has cancelled or postponed vaccine exports to other countries including Bangladesh.
The Indian Serum Institute was supposed to supply 30 million vaccine doses (5 million doses a month) to Bangladesh by June. But the institute has only supplied 7 million doses and has suspended further shipments since February.
Due to the government’s fear of shortages, many people are facing difficulties in registering for doses while the government is scrambling to find new sources for vaccines -- such as domestically manufacturing Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine along with receiving 500,000 doses as a gift from China. But in a country of 163 million, how long can we rely on such gifts?
On top of that, there is an added problem regarding the safety of inoculating the same person with different brands of vaccines. Even if Bangladesh is able to get vaccines from alternative sources, it means that a huge number of people who have already taken the Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine as a first dose have to take the second dose from another brand. Studies are still ongoing to determine if there is actually a profound negative effect of combining vaccines, but experts strongly recommend not doing so as of yet.
Spreading within the country
For the sake of argument, let’s assume that the Indian variant has entered the country and infected a considerable number of people. Given the extension of the nationwide lockdown, it would be plausible that the spread could be controlled, right?
Not exactly, as the lockdown has not been implemented to the level where it would be able to successfully limit public movement and combat the virus. Since the government authorized the reopening of shopping malls and markets, these businesses, stores and the local transportation remained crowded with people scrambling to complete their last-minute Eid shopping. Many shoppers were seen breaking health safety rules and ignoring social distancing.
On top of that, tens of thousands of people have left Dhaka for their home villages to celebrate Eid-ul-Fitr and now these people are slowly making their way back into the capital which already has a superfluity of other socio-economic issues such as high poverty rates, a fragile health infrastructure, inadequate social protection systems, and limited access to water and sanitation facilities.
A probable solution
With a large number of people outside Dhaka in less congested areas and employers being less stringent with post-Eid work, another short but strict lockdown could be a suitable candidate for a practical solution. We all know the impacts of a lockdown on the economy and our livelihoods, but do we really want a third wave that could potentially lead to more drastic ramifications?
Ultimately, if lockdown procedures are not followed and the vaccine issue is not sorted out, the virus and its variant counterparts will continue to make their natural progression throughout the country in a malevolent third wave leading to the collapse of our already strained health care system.
Nobody wants that.
Armeen Ahmed is a freelance contributor.