Bangladesh reimposes virus restrictions as omicron spreads

Bangladesh has imposed specific health restrictions once again to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as the new omicron variant causes a spike in cases.

The government imposed restrictions in 11 sectors to curb the spread of the pathogen five months after it had relaxed health rules. The new restrictions take effect Thursday.

Among the restrictions is a ban on social, religious or political gatherings in open spaces.

Buses and trains will only be allowed to take half their capacity of passengers from Saturday. People will also have to show their vaccination certificates for dining in restaurants.

It will be mandatory for drivers of all vehicles and their helpers to get vaccinated and carry the vaccine certificate.

Students over 12 years of age will not be allowed to enter their educational institutions without having at least one dose of the vaccine and a vaccine certificate.

Masks are required in offices and outside the home. The government has warned of strict punitive measures for anyone who has broken the rules.

“We must ensure that everyone wears a mask. The mobile courts may impose a fine or even jail if someone doesn’t wear a mask. No one should get on board public transport without wearing a mask,” Health Minister Zahid Maleque said at an event on Wednesday.

Bangladesh imposed a virus lockdown for the first time in March 2020, when the pandemic hit the country. The strict lockdown continued for more than two months. Only emergency service vehicles were allowed to run at the time. People were asked not to travel unless there was an emergency. The offices, educational institutes and factories also remained shut.

Later, the restrictions were relaxed when the virus cases ebbed across the country. But the rules were imposed again in different phases from April to August in 2021, as the delta variant of the coronavirus caused another surge in the virus infection. The government, however, allowed the factories to remain open in a bid to ‘maintain a balance of lives and livelihoods.’

Educational institutions reopened in September 2021 after the infection rate dropped significantly and people went back almost to their normal lives.

Bangladesh saw an uptick in COVID-19 cases last December after the omicron variant spread across the globe. On Wednesday, it reported around 3,000 new COVID cases. The daily positivity rate, which had been around 3 percent 12 days ago, increased to 12 percent.

Omicron, the new strain of the coronavirus first identified in South Africa in November, has been held responsible for the latest wave of virus infection in Bangladesh.

On Dec 11, the government reported two women cricketers returning from Zimbabwe had contracted the omicron infection. Currently, at least 15-20 percent of the COVID-19 patients have contracted the omicron variant, according to the health minister.

A large number of coronavirus patients will seek medical treatment in the hospitals, and if enough measures are not taken now, the number is likely to shoot up. Then hospitals would not be able to admit patients and provide treatment, he warned.

“We can assume that at least five percent of the total patients will need to go to the hospitals. Already, many of them have started coming. The hospitals will be full within five to seven days,” the minister said, adding this may lead to a severe crisis and cause a sharp rise in the death toll.

Bangladesh saw its health system almost collapse last year as patients flooded hospitals when the highly contagious delta strain was running rampant.

The daily case count crossed 16,000 while the daily death toll crossed 250. The situation forced the government to reimpose a strict lockdown.

The business community is against imposing a new lockdown that would hamper economic activities. Lockdowns are not a solution, and the focus should be on vaccination and ensuring health protocols, FBCCI President Md Jashim Uddin said in an event on Wednesday.

The government too plans to inoculate the citizens as soon as possible and ensure the health protocols are followed everywhere to keep the economy running. At least 46 percent of the population have received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine while 32 percent got two doses. Booster doses are currently going to people over the age of 60 and frontline workers.

THE RULES

>> Wearing a mask is mandatory for everyone in shops, malls, markets, hotels and restaurants, or any public place

>> It is mandatory to wear a mask outdoors. Those breaking the rule will be punished

>> Diners must show their COVID-19 vaccination certificates to eat in a restaurant or to stay in a hotel.

>> Students over 12 years of age will not be allowed to enter their education institutes without a vaccination certificate after the date fixed by the education ministry

>> More screenings will be done at land ports, seaports and airports. Maritime crews will not be allowed to leave their vessels. At the land ports, only truck drivers will be allowed to drive in and not their helpers. Visitors will not be allowed to see off passengers at airports

>> Trains, buses and launches must only carry half the capacity of passengers. The authorities will issue specific dates for when these measures will take effect. Drivers of all types of vehicles and their helpers have to be vaccinated and carry their certificates

>> All travellers coming from abroad must show their COVID-19 vaccination proof and do a rapid antigen test

>> During the sermon before Friday prayers, imams at mosques must raise awareness among people to follow the health protocols and wear a mask. The deputy commissioners and upazila executive officers are also responsible for ensuring they do

>> The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare will do the necessary campaigns and take initiatives to speed up the vaccination and booster programme. They can also receive support from the Ministry of Information

>> All kinds of social, religious, political and other public gatherings in open spaces are banned until further notice

>> The local government will make a decision in special cases, after discussions with experts