Rumours pose major threat to coronavirus fight

  • Obaidur Masum, bdnews24.com
    Published: 2020-03-30 18:17:23 BdST

A combination of rumours, ignorance and misconceptions threatens to derail the fight against the novel coronavirus by further stoking fears over the deadly disease and, in turn, hampering efforts to properly treat and contain cases.

The resulting panic and stigma prompted a series of rather unseemly incidents across the country, which include people barring overseas returnees from entering their homes or forcing them to leave their villages, preventing the burial of bodies suspected of carrying the virus, vandalising a hospital for providing treatment to a possible Covid-19 patient and obstructing the construction of temporary hospital for the treatment of coronavirus patients.

According to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research or IEDCR, the number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Bangladesh is 49 with five fatalities. 

The government's disease control agency has stressed that it is safe to provide treatment to an infected person at home or in hospital while recommending a 'home quarantine' for returning expatriates even before the first cases of the disease were reported in the country.

Experts, however, warned that the situation will only be exacerbated if people take solace in unscientific, illogical and baseless means to deal with the outbreak.

Given the already difficult nature of the situation, a woman residing in Dhaka's Khilgaon recounted the troubles she experienced after her father fell ill. The 66-year-old man had been suffering from a fever, nausea and an upset stomach along with pains throughout his body, especially the chest, from Mar 23. The family took him to the IEDCR for a test as his symptoms were similar to that of a coronavirus infection but the results came back negative.

On Mar 28, they took the elderly man to see a doctor at a private hospital but upon their return, they were confronted by neighbours, who were unwilling to accept the IEDCR report and wouldn't allow the family to enter their own home. The matter was eventually resolved through police intervention.

“They let us in after police came and explained the situation. My sick father had to stay outside for two and a half hours and his condition only worsened as a consequence," said the woman, who requested anonymity in fear of any repercussion.

Mahbub Alam, who manages a private company in Malaysia, had travelled to India and was scheduled to fly back on Mar 21. But Malaysia imposed a lockdown on Mar 18 and he had to return home to Bangladesh.

His neighbours, however, would not let him stay in his Savar residence. Later, he went to his maternal grandparents’ home in Tangail only to be confronted by local residents.

“We have a separate house there, which I thought would be better for home quarantine.  But somehow, the villagers got to know about my arrival and hundreds of them went there only to tell me that I couldn't be there. I only managed to stay once the local administration intervened.”

“They misbehaved with me even though I wasn’t infected. A person will fall sick if people create panic in such a way.”

Many returnees have complained of facing rogue behaviour on their return in parts of the country.

On Mar 28, locals raised an objection against the burial of a man in Shibganj, Bogura, over suspicions that he died from the coronavirus. In a similar case in Dhaka, locals prevented the burial of two men died who died from Covid-19 at the Taltala graveyard. They were later laid to rest at the Mirpur Martyred Intellectuals’ Graveyard.

Locals took out a procession in protest against a hospital in Dhaka's Uttara after it admitted a coronavirus patient on Mar 22.

Similarly, locals vandalised the site of a prospective hospital for the treatment of Covid-19 patients in Tejgaon, citing fears that the virus would spread across the locality because of the facility.

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY

People in Bangladesh have several virtues that distinguish them along with a few vices, said Dr Md Nazrul Islam, former vice chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University. Believing in rumours is one of the vices, according to Dr Nazrul. Even if an individual is infected with the coronavirus, they cannot transmit the virus to another unless they come into contact with them, he said.

“All of the experts are saying this. We can understand that the people are afraid of a new, unknown disease. Today they’re preventing others, or stigmatising them; but what if tomorrow they become infected? These issues should be addressed strongly.”

The consequence of misbehaving with an actual or suspected Covid-19 patient may be dire, said Dr Mushkat Hossain, former chief scientific officer in IEDCR. In such a case, patient will not readily reveal if they are having any symptoms in fear of the social stigma, he said.

“The disease has limited chances of being spread if the patients stay at home. But if they are forced out of their homes, they may infect many more people. This is really dangerous. We’re just bringing more trouble to ourselves. In this way, we won’t be getting treatment if we suffer from it and will also never know if we have a patient in the family.”

Such actions by a few ‘irresponsible’ people could affect the entire nation, the virologist believes.

The National Heart Institute and Hospital, Shaheed Suhrawardy Hospital, Mental Health Institute and Children’s Hospital are all located in Sher-e-Bangla Nagar with Mohammadpur and even Ganabhaban, the prime minister’s official residence, nearby.

Several hospitals, including the National Institute of Diseases of the Chest and Hospital, Leprosy Hospital, and other hospitals for cancer or infectious diseases, are located in Mohakhali near the densely populated localities such as Niketan and Gulshan.

These neighbourhoods will become inhabitable if the disease spreads from these hospitals, Dr Mushkat.

Patients are always kept and treated separately to reduce the effects of the infection, he said. "Medical workers provide treatment while wearing protective gears and everything is disinfected regularly. This is why the chances of the disease spreading from the hospitals are low," he told bdnews24.com. 

“People live near hospitals that treat tuberculosis and infectious diseases. Doctors, nurses and staffs live there too. They don’t suffer from any illness.”

According to the Directorate General of Health Services, 665,013 people have returned to Bangladesh after the novel coronavirus broke out in China. Among them, 28,483 are quarantined with another 28,341 isolating at home and 142 in hospitals.