Bangladesh re-enters its ‘strictest’ coronavirus lockdown yet after Eid break

The Bangladesh government is reimposing a lockdown on Friday with curbs dubbed “strictest yet” after a nine-day break for Eid-ul-Azha in a desperate intervention to stem the tide of record coronavirus infections and deaths.

Along with the police and other security forces, the army will be back on the streets to ensure no one breaches the stay-at-home guidance without an emergency reason from 6am to Aug 5 midnight.

There were speculations that the government would defer the lockdown, but State Minister for Public Administration Farhad Hossain on Thursday confirmed they were sticking to their plans to reimpose the restrictions.  

“We don't have a choice but to be stringent as we saw a lot of movement before Eid. There is no alternative (to a lockdown) for controlling the spread of the coronavirus infection.”

As Farhad was speaking to bdnews24.com on Thursday afternoon, scores of people thronged Shimulia port to return to Dhaka after celebrating the Eid with their relatives.

Some also crowded Gabtoli bus terminal to leave the city and spend the 14 days of lockdown back at home towns and villages.

Asked if those who had left Dhaka for the Eid break would have a chance to return before the lockdown, the state minister said, “Let those who have left stay put until Aug 5 since everything is closed."

Along with the offices, factories will also be shuttered this time. The time for wet markets and shops selling daily necessities has been reduced by two hours.

Bangladesh is currently going through the most devastating wave of infections after the number of patients had begun to rise in April due to the highly contagious Delta variant of the coronavirus. The situation improved slightly in May before worsening again.

After the government confirmed more than 112,000 COVID-19 cases in June, the caseload swelled by 225,000 in the first 22 days of July. The death toll in this period crossed 4,000 against 1,884 fatalities in June.

After infections had begun to rise again in June, the government enforced a harsh lockdown for a week from Jul 1 following expert advice. It was extended by another week as the situation continued to worsen.

The police arrested more than 9,000 people in Dhaka for the breach of restrictions in those 14 days. People, however, began returning to the streets for work ahead of the Eid by the end of the lockdown with their savings and sources of money drying up.  

In this grim reality, the government decided to allow all to celebrate the Eid without any curbs by lifting the lockdown for nine days, ignoring warnings from the National Technical Advisory Committee on COVID-19 that loosening the restrictions would cause devastation.

As the number of sample tests dropped to one-fourth of the pre-Eid level on the day of the festival, the number of cases reported in the 24 hours to Thursday morning also dropped to a month-low. The case positivity rate, however, was the highest in a year. The death toll from COVID-19 in the daily count was 187, more than what it was a day earlier.

In this situation, some of the major points in the restrictions to be enforced from Friday morning are:

>> All public, semi-public, autonomous and private offices, except those running emergency services, are closed.

>> All public transit by road, rail and river is suspended, as is domestic air travel. Some domestic flights will be operated to carry passengers who are taking international flights.

>> All stores, including shopping malls and markets are closed.

>> All tourist venues, resorts, community centres and entertainment centres are closed.

>> All factories are closed. The sectors related to rawhide, food, and drugs and COVID-19 personal protective equipment will be able to operate.

>> Large social gatherings, including political and religious events, are barred.

>> Government workers must stay close to their workplaces and complete their work virtually.

>> Wet markets and stores selling necessities may stay open from 9am to 3pm if they follow health protocols.

>> People cannot leave their homes except in case of emergencies, such as purchasing medicine and other necessities, to seek medical care or to conduct funerals for the dead. Legal action will be taken against those who violate this restriction.

>> Those receiving vaccines may travel to get them by showing their vaccination cards.

>> Restaurants and hotels may offer online delivery and takeaway, but not dine-in service, between 8am and 8pm.

>> International flights will remain in operation and those who have tickets will be able to travel, subject to inspections.

>> Transactions at banks are allowed from 10am to 1:30pm with a limited number of employees.   

>> Courts, the local government and the deployment and duties of the armed forces will be clarified in statements from their respective government agencies.

The government’s efforts to ensure self-isolation and quarantine has slowed own and public health experts fear this decline could make the surging coronavirus infection rate even more dangerous.

Experts say infections will continue to rise until the transmission is stopped. The only way to improve the situation is to break the cycle of infection, by taking measures to stop the transmission of the pathogen from the infected to the uninfected.

For this to happen, everyone has to be vaccinated. But until most of the people are immunised, the experts do not see an alternative to isolation and quarantine of the COVID-19 patients and people who came into close contact with them.

However, the Directorate General of Health Services says that is no longer possible as the infections have spread far and wide already.

DGHS spokesperson Dr Md Robed Amin claims that isolations and quarantines lose their effectiveness all over the world once the infection rate hovers from 30 to 70 percent.

“Isolation and quarantine are effective when the rate of infection is between 5 and 10 percent. But these measures are less effective when the rate surges higher.”

Public health expert Dr Mushtuq Husain, however, believes that it is possible to arrange for proper isolation and quarantine even amidst the ongoing crisis.

The advisor to the government’s disease control agency IEDCR also warned that the risks of infection and subsequent deaths may rise to a point where it can no longer be controlled if the right deterrents were not deployed.

“Isolation centres have to be set up in every ward. Most of the people can stay at home. Those who live in huts in villages, they can be served food in their yards. These measures have to be put in place in densely populated villages,” he said.

Dr Mushtuq also believes both the government and the people need to step forward to carry out the efforts effectively.

“We have to ensure food for those who are leaving home for work. Many are often unable to isolate themselves at home since there are a lot of people in a room. Then again, many people don’t even have homes.”

“For them we have to set up community isolation centres, which we are calling field hospitals or makeshift residences. This is how we need to separate the infected.”

Experts have also urged authorities to acquire more samples to test for a proper assessment.

“We’ve to put everyone through tests at the slightest suspicion to prevent infections from spreading. If they test positive, they have to either be isolated or quarantined,” said virologist Dr Nazrul Islam, a member of the National Technical Advisory Committee on COVID-19. 

Although Bangladesh’s capacity to do tests has increased much, many are still not getting the tests out of fear of social ignominy and financial crisis, especially in the rural areas.

“Once tested positive for COVID-19, if they notice that society is providing food or making arrangements for any other necessities so that they don’t have to go out, they won’t have to worry about income, then they’ll be interested in getting the test,” said Dr Mushtuq.

“And that’ll help us to identify more cases, and also isolate people effectively. They’ll also receive advices, which will reduce the odds of getting infected and the number of deaths.”