Over the past 10 days, the South Asia Center has consulted broadly with public health professionals and social scientists who study Bangladesh
In a major report on Bangladesh and its handling of the Covid-19 crisis, titled “Defusing Bangladesh’s Covid-19 time-bomb,” the South Asia Center of Washington, DC-based think tank the Atlantic Council provides the following recommendations for tacking the crisis.
According to the report, policymakers in Bangladesh need to gear up in anticipation of a deterioration of the situation.
While the Asian Development Bank (ADB) has promised a $6.5 billion package to address the immediate needs of developing member countries (DMCs), and India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has pledged $10 million toward a special emergency fund to set up a rapid response team for the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (Saarc), Bangladesh will have to face this battle largely on its own.
Over the past 10 days, the South Asia Center has consulted broadly with public health professionals and social scientists who study Bangladesh. Those conversations lead the centre to offer the following healthcare, social, and economic recommendations:
Support initiatives to increase the local production of medical gloves, masks, and other medical kits for healthcare practitioners who, as the front line defenders, are the most vulnerable. According to Health and Family Welfare Minister Zahid Maleque, as of now, Bangladesh has adequate testing kits and personal protective equipment (PPE), numbering around 200,000 units. On March 26, a large consignment of emergency medical supplies provided by the Chinese government arrived. This shipment included 10,000 testing reagents, 15,000 surgical masks, 10,000 medical protective equipment, and 1,000 infrared thermometers. But, as the grim lessons from other countries make clear, in the case of a mass outbreak, even more PPE will be required and more testing needs to be done.
Covid-19 testing facilities should be made available across both public and private medical centres with immediate effect. Once locally produced full-scale standardized and accurate kits are available, testing capabilities should be distributed to other locations in Dhaka and across the country. Bangladesh should commit to mass testing on about 1% of its population to identify community spread of Covid-19. As of March 29, Bangladesh’s official Covid-19 tracker confirmed 48 cases and five deaths. A press conference that day stated that 1,185 tests had been conducted thus far. This number is much lower in comparison to India and Pakistan, who as of March 29, have tested 27,688 and 14,336 cases respectively.
Implement awareness campaigns for the general public. Unless an individual is over 65 and/or has pre-existing health conditions, symptoms should be followed by a six to seven-day quarantine period and individuals should not go to healthcare facilities. If an individual’s health condition continues to deteriorate, they should then go for Covid-19 testing.
Emotional and mental health services, as well as financial support, should be provided for health workers. The medical community of the nation at this point are severely at high risk and are fearful.
The Ministry of Religious Affairs should endorse the fatwa of the Council of Senior Scholars at Al-Azhar, one of the Muslim world’s top Islamic institutions, where it is permitted under Sharia Law to suspend congregational prayers to counter the spread of the virus. Many Muslim-majority countries in the Middle East including Saudi Arabia have banned gatherings such as in the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Restaurants and public locations should remain closed after April 4 for a period of at least another 10 days, and citizens should be prepared for even longer disruptions of daily life. There must be tougher self-quarantine norms—and if needed lockdown measures—in certain areas of the country with higher concentrations of Bangladeshi expatriates. Sri Lanka had instituted a stay-at-home curfew in eight districts of the country, where violation of this measure has led to the arrest of over 1,600 people. Now that the army has been summoned in Bangladesh, certain districts across the country can be asked to impose curfew-like restrictions, with violations leading to strict punishment and fines.
The government must utilize television, radio, and social media to counter the spread of fraudulent treatment methods through disinformation channels, and to raise appropriate awareness of Covid-19’s dangers for even otherwise healthy victims.
Village community leaders such as Imams and village elders should be involved in spreading information on countering Covid-19. Local non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and government officials have a list of such leaders and can centrally coordinate their response.
Private universities should be mobilized to provide premises for quarantine facilities and temporary hospitals, given that many of them have campuses located right outside Dhaka. Similar initiatives have been taken by higher educational institutions in the United States.
In concurrence with the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), one of Bangladesh’s leading economic think tanks, leniency should be provided for loans to small and medium sized-businesses and extended pay back periods granted. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina announced a stimulus package of Tk 5,000 crore ($590 million) for the export-oriented industries. However, it is also imperative that the government provide smaller entrepreneurs with fiscal support so that they can maintain production and pay workers’ wages.
To protect daily wage labourers who have not left Dhaka to return to their hometowns, tougher lockdown measures accompanied by supportive humanitarian measures should be implemented in slum areas where daily wage workers are concentrated. As in the Rohingya camps, daily wage labourers should be provided with rations for two weeks so that they can observe social distancing measures without risk of starvation or malnutrition. Such a policy could build on the precedent by the neighbouring Indian state of West Bengal, which will provide free rations to the poor until September. Additionally, as the month of Ramadan is approaching, zakat funds should be collected by both the government and NGOs for this purpose.
The government must provide the necessary financing to allow Gonoshasthaya Kendra and other healthcare organizations to produce their Covid-19 testing kits at requisite volumes and support distributional channels to allow medical facilities around the country to access these kits.
The government must help catalyze the funding required to enable the local production of hand sanitizers and PPEs, which are being made by university students and small tech companies. This will disincentivize counterfeiting and fraud.
Over the next six months, the government must ensure that strategies suggested by the ADB and other international organizations are implemented without delay to minimize the inevitable economic slowdown that will follow even a successful fight against the novel coronavirus.
The global Covid-19 pandemic is caused by a once-in-a-generation pathogen that has proven capable of bringing the health systems of the richest countries of the world to their knees. The damage that will be wrought on developing country populations if their governments delay implementation of aggressive countermeasures is unimaginable.
Living in densely populated areas with large sections of society reliant on daily wages to make ends meet—and served by public health systems that have been deprived of investment for decades—Bangladeshi citizens are among the world’s most vulnerable to the unchecked spread of this disease.
But the situation is not hopeless, and Dhaka must utilize every tool in its arsenal to serve its citizens. The policy checklist presented above is a good place to start.
The report that these recommendations were drawn from was written by Irfan Nooruddin and Rudabeh Shahid for the New Atlanticist. The full text of the report is available here.