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Tuesday, June 16, 2020

Pandemic has exposed deep-seated weaknesses in Bangladesh

Photo: Reuters
A senior staff member along with many others of a grocery chain outlet in Dhaka were hailed as “corona warriors” by a leading English newspaper. The daily did not hesitate to describe that “our humanity, empathy, and responsibility is being tested by the coronavirus pandemic.”
Shila Aktar, a customer relationship officer at a grocery outlet had a fever, but other signs of coronavirus were absent. With fever, she went from one government hospital to another -- over four consecutive days.
She tried day and night to access the dedicated helpline. Also, she desperately tried online registration with no luck.
On the third day, she had an outrageous experience at a government-dedicated Mughda Hospital for Covid-19 patients. The Ansar Battalion sold Tk20 tickets at the exorbitant price of Tk2,000 to 3,000 in connivance with the hospital staff.
Hearing her ordeal, a journalist wrote an angry post on Facebook. Promptly, the lawmaker Saber Hossain Chowdhury responded pro-actively. The following day, the guards were removed and an additional booth to collect 150 additional samples a day was opened adjacent to the hospital.
On the fifth day, despite feeling weak, she stood in a queue from 6am in a make-shift booth in Bashabo, in the city. Finally, her sample was taken.
The issue did not end there. Now the waiting period began to get her virus test report. After four days she received a heartbreaking message online and also phone SMS that she was positive. 
“Dear Shila Aktar, your test for coronavirus is positive. Please stay at home. Be positive.”
The test for the coronavirus is a nightmare for millions in the country. Well, the government and private resources have been inadequate, coupled with widespread corruption in medical supplies and a lack of transparency in health care management.
As the crisis in Wuhan enlarged last winter, the “learned” heath minister Zahid Malek assured the nation that the country is fully prepared to overcome the pandemic.
When the virus finally struck on March 7, there were only a few ventilators in the country. The country had few virus testing labs, and no dedicated hospitals for infected patients when the first virus was detected in early March.
Despite media warnings, based on input from infectious disease experts, the airport authorities and immigration departments were lax in checking the entry of thousands of people, and also didn’t follow the quarantine protocols.
Well, the government never used the word “lockdown” or “curfew” and the police and civil administration all over the country failed to keep the people at home, maintain social distancing, wear masks, or practise basic hygiene.
The worst-case scenario was that the doctors, nurses, and health care staff often did not have enough PPE, including gloves and masks and safety materials.
Some state hospital senior doctors who have taken to social media to criticize the poor quality of medical supplies were punished. Even those who complained of poor living facilities in designated hotels were also punished.
Caught in a catch-22 situation, between lives and livelihoods, after 66 days, the government partially opened offices, factories (including export industries), shops, public transport, domestic flights, and restaurants. Several media reports say all the establishments flouted health guidelines with impunity.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has been rated among the top 10 women leaders for the commendable job in coronavirus management by the prestigious Forbes magazine. She recently wrote in the British newspaper, The Guardian, that Bangladesh is unlikely to be the only country struggling with health, economic, and climate emergencies this year.
Most governments have proved dangerously unprepared for the crisis, which has exposed deep-seated weaknesses in public-health and social-security systems in rich and poor countries alike.

First published in the Dhaka Tribune, 16 June 2020

Saleem Samad is an independent journalist, media rights defender, recipient of Ashoka Fellowship and Hellman-Hammett Award. He could be reached at Twitter @saleemsamad

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