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Why Bangladeshis no longer fear the coronavirus 

September 29, 2020

Despite the prevalence of daily new infections, many people are reluctant to abide by the government's health safety guidelines. Experts fear a severe crisis if the rules are not enforced strictly.

People commuting by public transport in the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka
Image: DW/R. Murtuza

Jannatul Ferdous, a 28-year-old medical graduate in Bangladesh's capital Dhaka, says she has noticed people in her country becoming increasingly less concerned about COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus, which has so far killed over a million people worldwide.  

"Following safety guidelines to stay safe from the coronavirus is a luxurious matter to many poor people in our country. They will die of hunger if they don't go out to work," Ferdous told DW. 

Although the Bangladeshi government has offered some financial assistance to people in need, it wasn't enough, said Ferdous.

"Many people in my country are still living below the poverty line. They have no other choice but to go out and earn their daily bread despite the risk of getting infected by the virus."

Read more: Coronavirus: Economy down, poverty up in Bangladesh

Omi Azad, an IT professional based in Dhaka, shares a similar view. He told DW that most people he regularly encounters in the megacity aren't wearing a mask anymore. To some, the virus has become something to make fun of, he said.

"If you go out with your mask on, people think something is not right with you. I believe they have stopped caring because they did not see it as a crisis. If anyone gets COVID-19 now, they just treat it like any other fever," Azad said, adding: "Government spokespersons and media almost stopped talking about the virus. It looks like the fear has gone."

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No daily updates, lack of awareness

Bangladesh has so far recorded over 360,000 coronavirus infections, with more than 5,100 related deaths. About 272,000 people have so far recovered from the disease.  

Experts believe the actual death figure could be higher as government statistics include only coronavirus-related deaths that occurred in hospitals. 

"A recent survey by a non-governmental organization found that a few thousand more have died with coronavirus symptoms over the last few months. They weren't tested before their death," Mohammad Mushtuq Husain, senior researcher at Bangladesh's Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control & Research (IEDCR), told DW. 

Unlike in places like the US and Italy, the South Asian nation wasn't hit hard by the virus, Husain said, pointing to the relatively fewer related deaths. This has led people to believe that the virus is not that dangerous, the expert stressed.

"On average, 30 to 50 Bangladeshis have been dying every day because of the virus. The figure is much lower than the death rates in New York, Lombardy or Wuhan, which make people believe that the chances of dying because of the virus are very low."

Read more: Coronavirus disruptions deal severe blow to Bangladesh's garment industry

Observers also say that the authorities have failed to create enough public awareness about the long-term impact of the virus.

In the initial weeks of the pandemic, there was a daily press briefing where government officials revealed the death toll figures, which helped people stay alert. But it was stopped after only a few weeks and the government began easing restrictions to restart economic activity despite the continuing threat of the spread of the virus.

Mohammad Shahidullah, the chairperson of the national technical advisory committee on coronavirus in Bangladesh, has expressed concern that the spread of the virus could be more dangerous if people continued to be reluctant to follow health safety guidelines. 

"I have urged the government to implement corona hygiene guidelines strictly like the way Germany, Italy and other Western countries implement it," Shahidullah told DW, adding: "However, nothing like this is happening in Bangladesh. As there's no punishment for disobeying health safety guidelines, people are becoming reluctant to follow it."

People wait outside a coronavirus testing center in Dhaka
Bangladesh has so far recorded over 360,000 coronavirus infections, with more than 5,100 related deathsImage: Reuters/M.P. Hossain

Less test, less infection?

Bangladesh has seen a decline in the daily new infection figures recently, with less than 2,000 new cases per day recorded over the last three weeks.

Experts point out that fewer tests have been carried out in recent weeks, which may have had an impact on the recorded infection rate.

"There should be more than 20,000 tests a day. But it has been reduced to 12 to 15,000 a day recently, which I don't support. I think more tests should be conducted to get a proper idea of the infection rate," Shahidullah said.

Bangladesh's Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has expressed concern that spread of the virus could intensify in winter. And authorities have also announced plans to deal with the problem in the coming months. But experts say nothing will work if the government fails to make people follow health safety guidelines, including wearing masks in public places and keeping appropriate physical distance from one another. 

"We have to keep the coronavirus positivity rate below 7-8% in Bangladesh. It's more than 12% now. It's possible if we follow hygiene guidelines," Shahidullah said. "But if we don't follow the rules, the infection rate could rise much higher during the winter season."   

IEDCR expert Husain is of the same view. He believes strong action is needed to make people abide by the government's health safety guidelines. 

"The virus will continue to spread if we fail to take proper action to contain it. Sometimes the rate will fall, sometimes it will increase. There can be a second wave at any time. The virus won't go away on its own."

DW Arafatul Islam Multimedia Journalist
Arafatul Islam Multimedia journalist focusing on Bangladeshi politics, human rights and migration.@arafatul