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Bangladesh has crossed 100 days of COVID-19. Testing has plateaued. Health facilities outside the capital remain under strain. Read the latest on COVID-19.
Dear colleagues, partners and friends,
Bangladesh crossed 100 days with COVID-19 this week. The number of confirmed cases have plateaued to a range of 3,300 to 4,000 this week, but so has the testing. There still has not been any decision on how red zones will be implemented in Dhaka.
Positive news after testing kits controversy
The government is planning to introduce multiple COVID-19 test methods from July, including antigen, nucleic acid, and antibody ‘dry and wet’ tests – which provide results in less time. The Directorate General of Health Services plans to import 100,000 to 200,000 kits at a time.
Efforts to expand testing facilities at the sub-district level are underway. 3,000 medical technologists and technicians are being recruited. Again, the question remains how quickly this will be done, as time continues to be of essence. There was a major scandal this week about a testing fraud by an authorised private sector provider, JKG Health Care. Questions have been raised about how this organisation was given authorisation to test in the first place.
A coordination cell to prevent COVID-19 transmission has been formed. The cell will monitor and coordinate the virus preventive activities of all the agencies and departments under the division, ensure coordination between the activities of the agencies of the division and other departments of the government and monitor all the civic services being provided by city corporations in red zones, involving volunteers, public representatives, imams (religious leaders), NGO representatives and eminent personalities.
The work of the community support team, implemented by BRAC, with support from the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and World Bank, is set to start very soon in a number of wards of Dhaka. Further coordination with Dhaka North City Corporation was established this week.
The pressure on health care facilities is growing outside Dhaka now, where there are increasing reports of people dying with symptoms similar to COVID-19. There are also increasing accusations from patients of not getting critical medical care.
Last week in Khulna, a Mr Mujahidul Islam’s family was refused treatment in six hospitals before he passed away due to lack of oxygen. He was not suffering from COVID-19. The numbers of cases in Khulna exploded from 150 to 1,000 last week. The rising tension is causing people to take the law into their own hands. A clinic owner was beaten to death on 17 June after the public accused him of wrong treatment. Three more red zones were announced in Khulna, which went under lockdown from 25 June.
Our key focus at BRAC, that we have invested most heavily in, has been community-level awareness, ownership, testing, and wearing of masks.
How are the slum dwellers in Dhaka?
There are surprisingly low numbers of people going to hospitals or reporting symptoms within the slums. BRAC’s informal survey, conducted through its community organisers, found 290 patients with symptoms similar to COVID-19 in approximately 300 slums we work in.
There are no reports of people going for testing, nor is there widespread reporting of hospitalisations. No one seems to be sure how wide the spread is. Newspaper reports say that the impact of the disease on the low income population seems to be mild, but this is based on anecdotal observation and no formal study has been done. Universities could look into this. These people mostly work in outdoor spaces and are from a relatively younger age group. Those may play out as factors as well.
Some persisting challenges
Gaps in data continue to cause issues. Inaccurate data released by the Directorate General of Health Services continues to create confusion. Many initiatives to contain the virus are being delayed due to data constraints. There has been a temporary halt in the publication of infection data for Dhaka city since 16 June by the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research. As they are the only source of COVID-19 data in Bangladesh, Dhaka is now in a data-blackout.
The government is yet to ensure safe management of COVID-19 waste, resulting in infection risks and environmental hazards. Experts fear that poor waste management may exacerbate the situation. BRAC’s climate change programme and Social Innovation Lab are working on a project in this regard.
Reports continue about people abandoning family members due to fears of becoming infected by the virus. Authorities are supporting affected people and taking legal action against the perpetrators.
Looking at the economy, experts suggest that Bangladesh should delay its graduation from a least developed country (LDC) to a developing country. Bangladesh will lose preferential trade benefits that are likely to have a negative impact on employment and local investments during this time of economic disruption, experts warned at a virtual discussion organised by the United Nations. 12 million people have been pushed into the category of “new poor”. Bangladesh’s official graduation is scheduled for 2024, with a three-year grace period for preparation. More details are in the situation report.
In other news
China has said Bangladesh will get priority in terms of cooperation and support if they can successfully develop a COVID-19 vaccine. Bangladesh has also been selected for human trials for the second phase of the Chinese vaccine trial. A team of Chinese medical experts attribute the spread primarily to a lack of awareness about social distancing and hygiene practices amongst the public.
50,000 people have left Dhaka, or have shifted their families to their village homes, because of unemployment and pay cuts. Many are leaving without the certainty of income back in their villages. BRAC spoke to Al-Jazeera about this trend this week here.
In terms of how the pandemic is affecting more vulnerable groups, some notable developments this week include:
BRAC also released the results of its own study on how the pandemic is affecting students in Bangladesh, see more on that in the feature in the report.
From next week, while the letter will come out every week, the extended report will come out fortnightly instead of weekly.
Asif Saleh is the Executive Director of BRAC in Bangladesh.