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CWA # 288, 13 May 2020

South Asia's COVID-19 Strategies
For Bangladesh, it was Nationwide Lockdown, Checking High Inflation & Critical Social Media 

  Adnan Aziz Chowdhury

The lessons to be taken from Bangladesh is to act faster and ensure a higher number of tests. The country needs to ensure cooperation and accountability by agencies, proper measures for doctors and nurses as well as set up isolation centers.


It was a late intervention by Bangladesh as the government enforced a relaxed lockdown from 26 March, 18 days after the first reported case of coronavirus. The rule of social distancing was imposed after several criticisms to the government's control and combat policy. Meanwhile, the check on social gathering became complicated after the government struggled to persuade the imams to follow social distancing guidelines and reduce congregational prayers earlier at the mosques. National celebrations in early March and a local election were also held during the pandemic crisis. There are widespread criticisms from the media on the shortage of testing kits, low testing rates and lack of ICU beds as many complained of being denied healthcare services by private hospitals. Till 23 May, total tests of 50,401 have been carried out by IEDCR, according to the data.
 
Relief Funds for Poor and Nationwide Lockdown  
On 5 April, the Prime Minister announced a package of around 8 billion dollars to help the economy of the country along with Bangladesh Bank announcing a 30 billion taka refinancing fund for the low-income professionals, farmers and small businesses who are affected by the shutdown.
 
The educational institutions were closed from 17 March after the students of the Dhaka University started to boycott their classes and exams in fear of the contagion. All on-arrival visas have been suspended for people travelling from the European countries other than the United Kingdom from 14 March. This strict rule followed six days after the first confirmed case was reported in Bangladesh on 8 March. Also, Bangladesh also brought back its 312 citizens from Wuhan, the epicentre of the pandemic in China.
 
A decision of a nationwide lockdown for ten days have been announced by the government wherein the private and the public offices will remain closed from the 26 April till 4 May. The closure was later extended to 5 May.
 
On 9 April, a complete lockdown of Cox's Bazar district where a majority of the Rohingya camps have been put in place.
 
Fake News, Faulty Tests, Corruption, Early Opening of Garment Factories as Detractors 
Fake News played a major role in downplaying the gravity of the crisis. Bangladesh being a relatively hot and humid country, led the public to believe that viruses do not affect these areas. Many Wazz Mahfils or religious gatherings across the country even spread information on how the coronavirus does not infect the Muslim population resulting in total disbelief on the empirical position on the issue. A few Wazz Mahfils were also spreading the truth of the impact of the virus to ensure that people are able to take a clear stance. In addition, there are cases of more than a dozen arrests since mid-March of doctors, opposition activists and students regarding their comments about coronavirus under the Digital Security Act.
 
The officials of many esteemed organizations and political parties downplayed the crisis saying the preparations to combat the crisis by the government were adequate. However, it turned out that only 29 ICU beds available, said a Business Standard report. The numbers of ICU beds were later increased, and there were only a few testing hospitals at the start of the crisis. Due to the public perception of a relaxed lockdown, the initial response by the citizens was to treat it as a national holiday and visited tourist destinations like Cox's Bazar. On 27 March, 19 days after the first announced case, three other organizations started testing for COVID-19 cases. Also, researches have been explained wrongly as assumptions were held to be foolproof, thereby downplaying the crisis further.
 
On 19 April reports indicated that Bangladesh remained at the second-lowest in terms of conducting rapid tests in Asia with just 90 tests per million and Myanmar at the bottom with 52 tests per million. Till 2 May, 8,238 people were found positive for the virus, among which 174 have recovered and 170 had died indicating that the recovery rate is still very low after almost two months since the first case in Bangladesh.
 
There were increasing complaints after many tests showed false negative due to less expertise of the health officials. When a reputed public health service body, Gonoshasthaya, informed the government, quite early, to use cheaper alternatives to PCR testing, the government had declined. Only later in April, the government agreed to use the kit after massive criticism flooded the social media and the test was approved for use in the European countries. Doctors also complained to have not received a good number of PPE and health forums have claimed that more than 251 doctors are affected with coronavirus with a doctor from Sylhet who died from the infection. Health care services are available on-call as the government and independent healthcare bodies have enabled one-stop services for the patients.
 
The international news agencies have reported showing that food aids have been disappearing to an amount of 6,00,000 pounds after the government had initiated plans to aid the vulnerable citizens. Almost 50 bureaucrats and local officials have been accused of reselling the goods at higher prices.
 
Many garments' companies have created a menace by instructing its workers to come to work and collect their monthly payment during the lockdown. This has led many workers to walk hundreds of miles amid the lockdown from their native cities to the factories to collect only a part of their wage for April.
 
Check on Price Rise, Effective Civil Society and Participatory Social Media as Enablers
Farmers have not been able to sell their harvested goods and the prices of essential commodities in the cities have soared due to unavailability. There have been cases of excessive price of necessary goods during Ramadan which were handled promptly by the law enforcement agencies of the country by putting a fine on the stores. The law enforcement officials were acting diligently along with the doctors, journalists and bankers to serve the nation. They were delivering necessary materials to the people in need as well as ensuring the spread of authentic news.
 
Social media has been used diligently by the civil society starting from student organizations, debaters to academia to ensure a participatory act in raising funds to aid the working class and the needy. The funds were used to create hand sanitizers as well as to supply food for a month.
 
The political parties had also started to cut the rice plants as a part of solidarity with the farmers. The civil society, at this point, is also active to ensure the proper dissemination of trustworthy news and information to the people. Private companies have come forward by donating a portion of their money and wealth to set up temporary hospitals and also ensure a better response in the creation of necessary medicine. Social media has ensured to be both a carrier of myth as well as the buster of myth.
 
China and India have been very helpful in aiding the country with the necessary equipment. China has sent a huge number of masks, testing kits as well as PPE along with doctors. India has also assured to send doctors as well as 1, 00,000 hydroxychloroquine tablets to help the situation. Bangladesh has also sent help to many countries, namely the Maldives and Kuwait in times of the pandemic.
 
Bangladesh sets a lesson on Empathy, Cooperation and Fast Measures 
The lessons to be taken from Bangladesh is to act faster and ensure a higher number of tests. The country needs to ensure cooperation and accountability by agencies, proper measures for doctors and nurses as well as set up isolation centers. The hand in hand mentality of the citizens to come forward during the pandemic and aid many has been inspirational in the combat against coronavirus. The cooperation between the public and private sectors to fight the crisis is a sign to be followed while not allowing the early opening of businesses. Empathy now is the first and foremost step.


Adnan Aziz Chowdhury is studying the Department of Criminology at the University of Dhaka

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