Anxiety is the biggest epidemic in Bangladesh now
Bangladesh is yet to see the big number of deaths which China saw, and the West is now seeing. There is no mass dying here, but there is mass panic. Lockdown is a new experience for the teeming millions of Dhaka. It will be remembered but without nostalgia. Dhaka, known for its traffic jams, now presents a totally different picture. The eerie emptiness of its streets is a reminder that a virus on rampage has ended a way of life.
Republic of fear?
Fear comes from many sources. Some reactions to the coronavirus and the lockdown are justified but others stem from panic. As the world (particularly the Western world) suffers, the danger seems to be near. More Bangladeshis have died in New York than back home. Italy, the Middle East, Spain even Africa has seen Bangladeshis die of the virus. The world has become unsafe. No wonder the pandemic has been termed by the UN as “the greatest disaster after WW 2”.
The situation in Bangladesh is not alarming. The government says that 6 have died and 54have tested positive. This is heavily contested by many, particularly a section of media and internet groups which cite figures ten times the official estimate. But no one can be sure of the numbers. Meanwhile, over 50 groups, individuals and sites have been shut down by the police for spreading fake news.
That the Government is in a low testing mode is clear, though why, it is not clear. It has tested less than 10 per million while India has tested 18 per million. Pakistan has tested many more but it is already facing a deluge of cases. None of that has happened in Bangladesh yet but everyone thinks more testing should be done to get a better picture. They are saying that every day is closer to the case explosion phase when deaths rise dramatically and run into hundreds of thousands. The next two weeks are critical. Entire April is, and May could be worse.
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Like the rest of the world, Bangladesh was unprepared with no testing kits, a few paltry ICUs, no specialized hospitals and no contingency plans. These are now slowly coming into existence, but is hardly adequate. Testing by itself works only if it is followed by treatment. But almost certainly that will not happen in Bangladesh. If one looks at the US and Europe and compare the health services status of Bangladesh, the cause for extreme anxiety is obvious.
Panic is infectious too
Panic is therefore to be expected particularly because there is “season change” now in Bangladesh. Ailments like cough and fever are very common. These are shared with COVID-19. So just about everywhere thousands suffer and those in a serious condition have gone to hospitals only to find that hospitals won’t take them in. Several have died as a result. As yet, few hospitals are ready to handle such cases fearing that an acutely infectious disease could easily spread to others including the doctors. A doctor has already been infected. Panic in the health service is understandably high. Protective gears are only just arriving.
Meanwhile, public resistance to hospital designation for treating corona patients is high and even violence has occurred. Anyone remotely having such symptoms is being forcibly quarantined and even families have refused to take in such patients.
Thousands have called the official emergency helpline numbers but most go unanswered as expected. The call load is also so high that it is beyond anyone’s capacity to respond. Declarations by the government of both infection and death rates, which remain unusually low, have added to the anxiety. People fear that numbers are being hidden and that is not helping boost confidence.
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System never meant to cope
No country was prepared to handle the pandemic but Bangladesh with its low investment priority given to public health, may see the virus striking hard. The problem is not in testing and identifying the infected but in the provisions for treatment. This means creating the necessary facilities. This may not be within the capacity of the Bangladesh government even if it wants to. An important lesson to learn is that physical construction projects look nice in visuals but the real test of success lies in creating socio economic and health delivery systems.
The epidemic comes with a class tag attached to it. It is hitting the poor the most. That is also a sign that economic planning is flawed. There is a pro-rich bias with high tolerance of corruption at all levels. In the urban labor sector vulnerability is the highest. Most of the poor have left Dhaka.
ADB has said that the economic cost of coronavirus crisis would be around 3 billion dollars and much of that will be borne by the Ready Made Garment sector and guest workers in the Middle East. With oil prices plunging, the demand for guest workers is bound to decline. Bangladeshis are waiting with anxiety and fear. It is the uncertainty and the anxiety that is the biggest epidemic now.