Tens of thousands of migrant workers fled Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka on Sunday on the eve of a tightened lockdown that will curtail most economic activity and confine people to their homes as coronavirus infections soar.
Restrictions on activities and movement have been in place since mid-April as cases and deaths jumped.
Infections decreased in May but started to rise again this month, with just over 6,000 daily cases on Thursday and 108 deaths on Friday, according to the health ministry, the highest in more than two months.
The resurgence has prompted the government to toughen restrictions in stages from Monday, with economic activity – including shops, markets, transportation and offices – to shut down by Thursday.
People will be ordered to stay at home while only emergency services and export-oriented factories continue operations.
Al Jazeera’s Tanvir Chowdhury, reporting from Dhaka, said that many people had not been adhering to the limited shutdown imposed since April as it had not been enforced.
“The lockdown that is to start from July 1 will be strict, bringing a complete shutdown of the city, and it will be enforced by the military,” he said.
The pending closure has sparked an exodus from Dhaka.
With public inter-city transportation already suspended since June 22, people have squeezed into rickshaws, hopped on to motorbikes and even hired ambulances to make their way to their villages.
Ferries have been operating on overdrive, with some running services 24 hours a day and cramming more than 1,000 passengers on each trip.
“We don’t want them to overcrowd the ferry. But they don’t listen,” police sub-inspector Mohammad Reza told AFP news agency. “There is a mad rush of people.”
A senior official at the state-run Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Corporation told AFP that at least 50,000 people had crossed the river by ferries on Sunday alone.
At a river station in the rural town of Srinagar about 70km (43 miles) south of Dhaka, thousands queued from early Sunday to cross the Padma, a tributary of the Himalayan river the Ganges.
“We did not have any choice but to leave the city,” Fatema Begum, 60, told AFP while waiting for a ferry. “During the lockdown, there is no work. And if we don’t work, how do we pay rent? So we packed up everything and are going back to our village.”
Mohammad Masum, 30, a street vendor in Dhaka, said it was better to return home and “spend the time with family” than be confined in the capital.
Bangladesh has reported more than 880,000 infections and at least 14,000 virus deaths, but experts say the actual toll could be much higher due to possible underreporting.