Despatch from Dhaka | International

Bangladesh readies itself for the COVID-19 battle

A volunteer spraying disinfectant inside a bus in Dhaka earlier this month.   | Photo Credit: Reuters

Bangladeshis have begun to shut themselves down. A sub-district, about 125 km from Dhaka, has become the first potential hotspot for COVID-19 cases to come under partial lockdown. The local administration has shut public transport and shops, except grocery and drug stores, as at least 613 people have returned home to the area from European nations, mostly from Italy and Spain. The area, known as Shibchar in central Bangladesh, has sent about 10,000 people to Europe as migrant workers. “They are now coming back, turning the area into a risk zone,” said Shamsuddin Khan, chairman of the sub-district. “May God save us,” he said.

Mr. Khan is part of a team assigned to warn the residents against the growing risks of infections and order the migrant workers to stay indoors or in self-isolation.

Shibchar, home to 4,27,913 people, is just the first leg of the government’s unfolding war against the virus. It also sheds light on how COVID-19 has confined people to their homes in a remote corner of the world. The area is now a hotbed of frustration over how lives are being upended by the disease that was first detected in China’s Wuhan.

On the afternoon of March 18, Bangladesh announced the first death from COVID-19 — the 70-year-old patient was also suffering from a combination of diabetes, hypertension, and kidney and lung ailments. As the news broke, people started to leave Dhaka streets and hurry home. Many crowded shops to hoard basic household items to tide through days or weeks, in signs of panic buying. Santona, a sales clerk at an outlet of chain superstore Agora in Segunbagicha neighbourhood, said she went home late after work due to a sudden rush of customers.

People going inward

In times of crisis, fear gives way to a profound sense of solidarity. The virus is having an opposite effect, sending people inward and unmooring families from communities.

Like many Dhaka residents, Muhammad Hasan untethered himself from routines and activities: no weekend outings, no dining out with his children and wife. His employer, Bangladesh’s largest telecom company Grameenphone, has allowed him and many others to work from home.

Not just Grameenphone, but also other telecom companies, including Robi, are letting their employees work remotely as the country is beginning to retreat from public life. While he is busy at home working, Mr. Hasan has a different challenge of how to beat the boredom for his children. He renewed his Netflix subscription to binge-watch TV series.

The most obvious impact is on garment exports that account for 84% of Bangladesh’s total overseas sales. European and American retailers are cancelling clothing orders almost every day, costing the local manufacturers more than $100 million in lost business, as consumer spirits in the Western world are depressed, according to Rubana Huq, president of the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. “We are facing a grave situation with the coronavirus,” Ms. Huq said, adding that the business drought would lead to financial disruption at the manufacturing companies.

There was initial confusion over how to respond to the outbreak. With infections on the rise and two septuagenarians dead, it appears that the administration’s efforts to limit the spread of the virus have accelerated. The celebrations of independence leader Sheikh Mujibur Rahman’s birth centenary have been scaled down. Amid mounting criticism, the government eventually shut schools across the country. The Army has been assigned to operate two quarantine camps, not far from the Dhaka airport. In addition, several hospitals have been designated for suspected virus cases. The Department of Archeology closed sites and museums to visitors. Dhaka University asked its students to vacate dormitories, days after it suspended classes. In a sad reminder of growing vulnerability to the virus, city corporation authorities in Dhaka have designated a graveyard for the dead. Local administrations in districts have ratcheted up surveillance. In the port city of Chittagong, another high-risk zone, the police banned social events in restaurants and community centres.

An uneasy quiet seems to have settled across the country, but some people like Ms. Santona and her co-workers choose to carry on, more concerned about their livelihoods. For them, social distancing is far from an option. The weekend means busy hours for them as more customers line up to stock up for a period of quarantine.

(Arun Devnath is a journalist based in Dhaka)

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Printable version | Aug 4, 2021 9:43:47 PM |

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