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Bangladesh struggling to rein in COVID delta variant

July 5, 2021

The government has deployed the military in an effort to control the surge in COVID infections, which are blamed largely on the highly infectious delta variant.

Army personnel patrol the streets of Bangladesh's capital Dhaka
The army and police have been patrolling mostly empty streets in the capital Dhaka and other major citiesImage: BDNEWS24.com

Bangladesh has been witnessing an alarming rise in coronavirus cases over the past several days, prompting the government to deploy the military to the nation's streets to ensure that people stay indoors and don't violate lockdown restrictions.   

The surge in the South Asian country's COVID infections is blamed largely on the highly infectious delta variant first detected in India.

Hospitals are struggling to cope with the growing number of patients, particularly in areas bordering India. Some rural towns have recorded infection rates of about 70%, underlining the magnitude of the problem facing the health system.

Bangladesh has so far reported nearly 950,000 infections and more than 15,000 related deaths. But observers say that's a huge undercount and stress that the real caseload could be three to four times higher.

On Monday, the country reported 164 new COVID-19 deaths, its biggest daily rise since the pandemic began. It also registered the highest-ever number of new daily infections at 9,964.

Military and police patrol empty streets

As per the government's lockdown rules imposed at the start of the month, and now extended until July 14, Bangladeshis can only leave home in case of emergencies and to buy essentials.

The army and police have been patrolling mostly empty streets in the capital, Dhaka, and other major cities. Authorities have also shut down public transport and most shops. Stores that sell essential items can open for a few hours a day. Furthermore, large social gatherings have been banned in a bid to restrict people's movement.

"We have called upon the people to stay indoors to help improve the situation. Those who go out of their homes without a valid reason will face legal action," Mahtab Uddin, a police officer in Dhaka, told the AFP news agency.

"The prime target is to ensure social distancing, not to punish or fine anyone," he said.

Nevertheless, over 2,000 people have been detained over the past few days on charges of violating the lockdown rules, according to local media reports.

Despite the curbs on public transport, there was an exodus of migrant workers, with tens of thousands of them leaving the capital Dhaka and other large cities and moving to their home villages.

Emergence of a hotspot

The southwestern city of Khulna has emerged as a major virus hotspot over the past few days. 

Many of the affected families in the region report of a shortage of oxygen cylinders and hospital beds. And the death toll continues to rise, with reports suggesting that graveyards could not cope with the huge number of dead.

Officials blame the surge on people's refusal to wear masks or maintain physical distance.

On Thursday, Khulna city recorded 46 virus deaths, according to an official count, while in earlier waves the daily death toll never went into double figures.

Most people in the city believe the real toll could be much higher.

Mohammad Siddik, a 42-year-old businessman who admitted his brother to a hospital in the district, said his brother had died because of a shortage of medical oxygen. "He passed away gasping for air in the hospital corridor. They didn't give him any oxygen until the end," he told AFP.

Opposition slams government

Rumeen Farhana, an opposition parliamentarian, slammed the government for its pandemic response.

"The government has delayed imposing a lockdown, and, when it's imposed one, a lack of coordination has become clear," she told DW, adding: "Offices and factories have remained open, while public transport has been stopped, so it's causing huge sufferings for officegoers and garment workers."

She also noted that many daily wage laborers and low-income people have become jobless due to the lockdown, and the government hasn't provided enough support for them.

"Many of the people who needed government help to survive during the pandemic last year got on average 14 grams of rice and 11 cents per day. How could you expect someone to stay at home with such little help?" she said.

"The situation is no better this year," she added.

But Enamur Rahman, state minister for disaster management and relief, said the government had provided food support to more than 1.4 million people since the beginning of the lockdown.

"Ordinary citizens who feel shy to seek support from anyone are getting help now by calling the [333 hotline] number. We provide support based on the needs of the people and it includes lentils, rice and baby food," he told DW.

Bangladesh’s textile industry on its knees

COVID vaccination drive suffers blow

Meanwhile, authorities have been struggling to accelerate the Bangladesh's vaccination drive.

Only 3% the population of about 170 million people have so far received the required two doses.

The inoculation program took a hit after New Delhi stopped exporting AstraZeneca shots made in India earlier this year as infections skyrocketed there.

Over the weekend, Bangladesh received the first shipment of 2.5 million Moderna vaccines promised by the United States.

The Chinese embassy has said Beijing is sending about 2 million Sinopharm doses ordered by Dhaka, adding to 1.1 million shots already donated by China.

Despite these supplies, the demand for the vaccines in the country far outstrips the supply and it seems unlikely that there will be enough shots available to immunize the country's population anytime soon.

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