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Eid-ul-Azha is one of the biggest religious festivals celebrated by millions across the globe. During this time, people living in affluence sacrifice various livestock and distribute the meat among people living in poverty. Cattle farmers and sellers in Bangladesh wait for this time to make their biggest sales of the year. Seasonal cattle markets, which have become an integral part of the celebrations, are set up all over the country. However, this year, maintaining social distancing in such large gatherings during the pandemic was challenging. Here’s what we learned in our efforts to keep people safe:
The COVID-19 pandemic took a dangerous turn in Bangladesh in July 2021, and the country witnessed over 12,000 infected cases and 200 deaths daily. As Eid-ul-Azha approached, the key question was: how could we ensure the safety of millions of people in a densely-populated country like Bangladesh, where mimicking western policies such as social distancing may not work?
Eid-ul-Azha in Bangladesh is celebrated with a unique tradition of organising seasonal cattle markets. Millions of buyers and sellers from across the country gather in these markets to buy or sell sacrificial livestock, especially cattle.
These markets are packed – imagine sardines in a tin. They also induce millions of direct cash flow worth BDT 40,000-45,000 crore (more than 4.7 billion USD). This year, the markets risked turning into potential hotspots of community transmission of COVID-19, but cancelling them would mean dire economic impact on the livelihoods of millions.
“I will consider myself lucky if I can go back to my village safely during this COVID-19 crisis,” says Md Kamruzzaman, a cattle vendor at Bosila cattle market, one of the most crowded markets in Dhaka. While Kamruzzaman was aware of the risks of COVID-19 transmission, many others, including sellers, buyers and general visitors at the cattle markets were reluctant to follow health protocols. Public health officials have expressed their concerns over the dire situation and requested people to follow proper health precautions to keep themselves from getting infected.
Here are four key takeaways from BRAC’s partnership with the Government of Bangladesh in raising public awareness across 1,400 bustling cattle markets:
1. Clear, concise, direct
Any instruction must be clear to follow. Concepts of social distancing are brand new to many; majority of the sellers in these markets had difficulty to read or understand complex messages. It was crucial to frame the core messages in the simplest format, so that they were easily understood by everyone. We opted for visual cues such as icons and drawings to explain the importance of wearing masks, maintaining distance from each other and the benefits of handwashing in these large gatherings.
2. From all angles
Using multiple mediums was effective in disseminating the core messages among the crowds in the markets. Banners were placed on COVID-19 safety protocols at the entry and exit gates and leaflets with pictorial safety messages were distributed. Meanwhile, announcements went on in the background reminding people to be safe.
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3. Right on hand
BRAC’s staff members and volunteers remained on the ground to ensure that safety measures were not violated within the markets. They also distributed free masks and soaps to all visitors and sellers at the cattle markets to curb the virus transmission.
4. Make testing accessible
One of the key ways to break the chain of this virus transmission was to identify the infected individuals at the markets and ensure they were isolating themselves from everyone. Antigen-based COVID-19 rapid testing booths were set up in nine cattle markets of the Dhaka North City Corporation. These booths were established at the entrance gates so that anyone could get their test results in 30 minutes, helping to curb further transmission of the virus within the crowded markets. BRAC’s rapid testing services in the cattle markets were done in collaboration with the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), and were funded by the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO).
Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic is here to stay. The lessons from these cattle markets can serve as examples if we want to commemorate the new normal way of celebrating in large gatherings.
MD Yazdani is a Communications Specialist at BRAC Communications
Cover photo: Abdullah Al Kafi © BRAC