Lockdown announcement sparks huge exodus of migrant workers from capital Dhaka to home villages.
In a state-run hospital near Bangladesh’s border with India, Shahinul Islam prays his father does not become one of the facility’s more than 300 patients who have died this month from the coronavirus.
Hundreds like his father are struggling to breathe in the COVID-19 treatment unit, while Islam waits in an emergency room packed with people. Relatives rush in and out, desperately trying to find oxygen cylinders for their loved ones.
The crowds of COVID-19 patients and their worried families are new scenes for the 1,200-bed Rajshahi Medical College Hospital, which serves border communities being overrun by the more infectious Delta variant first detected in neighbouring India.
More than 450 people with COVID-19 were admitted on Tuesday to the state-run hospital in Rajshahi district’s main city.
Islam said his entire family has been shunned by people in his home village closer to the border.
“The other villagers are afraid of us. They don’t talk to us. When they see us on the road, they take a different path,” he said. “We are suffering a lot.”
Rising infections and crowded hospitals are being seen across Bangladesh, where a stringent lockdown starts on Thursday.
The government will deploy military soldiers, paramilitary border officers and riot police to enforce the lockdown, set initially for one week.
US sends 2.5 million vaccine doses
Meanwhile, the United States on Tuesday began shipping 2.5 million doses of Moderna’s COVID vaccine to the South Asian nation of more than 160 million people, a White House official told AFP news agency.
Bangladesh “has a 55 percent week-over-week increase in cases, driven largely by the Delta variant,” the official said, explaining how the country made it onto the urgent list. The delivery is expected to be completed this week.
Authorities in Bangladesh warn that the rapid surge in border areas is accelerating the virus’s spread further into Bangladesh. Hospitals in the cities of Khulna and Rajshahi are overwhelmed.
“If people do not maintain health safety rules and if they do not stay at home, this wave of the pandemic in Bangladesh could be catastrophic. It spreads fast and it kills more people,” said ASM Alamgir, a chief scientific officer of the government’s Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research in the capital, Dhaka.
Many border districts in northern and southwestern Bangladesh were spared from COVID-19 until now, so people lack antibodies against the virus. That, combined with the large numbers of unvaccinated people, makes the population much more vulnerable.
Just over four million people are fully immunised. Another 1.5 million have received one dose, but the shortage of Oxford-AstraZeneca imports, halted by India, have left them uncertain when they will get their second dose.
The Rajshahi hospital is also short of the type of oxygen supply system necessary for critical patients at a time when it is seeing more and more patients with worryingly low oxygen levels.
High-flow nasal cannulas deliver steady continuous oxygen to such patients, but government hospitals in border districts have been forced to rely on portable oxygen cylinders instead.
“They can’t be managed properly with just oxygen cylinders. If we can’t provide them with central oxygen line, God forbid, the casualties may increase,” said Brigadier General Shamim Yazdani, director of the hospital.
The South Asian nation has confirmed more than 900,000 cases in total, including at least 14,300 deaths since March last year. Experts say the actual figures could be higher.
On Monday, daily infections touched a record 8,364 – almost double from last week, according to the health ministry. Sunday saw its highest reported deaths of the pandemic, 119, while another 112 people died on Tuesday.
Experts are bracing for the situation to further worsen in the coming weeks.
The surging cases and vaccine uncertainties have pushed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government to double down with restrictions. The curbs began in phases on Monday before all economic activity will be halted in a stringent nationwide lockdown starting on Thursday.
In anticipation, thousands of people have attempted to flee Dhaka since last weekend, crowding bus and ferry terminals while flouting public health measures like maintaining social distancing.
A complete lockdown may be the only answer to slow the variant, which poses the biggest risk yet. “If we can enforce the strict shutdown as planned, we will be able to avoid a disaster,” said Alamgir. “Let’s hope for the best.”