Bangladesh Reopens Economy Despite Covid Third Wave
DHAKA, Bangladesh – Nasrin Jahan woke up breathless. Her daughter held her in the back of a rickshaw as they drove to a nearby clinic, where she was hooked up to an oxygen cylinder. From there, an ambulance took her to a hospital, then to another, in search of a bed.
“Ammu, you’ll be fine,” her daughter, Tajrin Jahan Yousha, tried to tell her, using a loving term for “mother”. “We are close to the hospital. They will take care of you. “
Bangladesh’s already strained healthcare system is crumbling under the ferocity of the country’s third wave of coronavirus infections, and by far the deadliest. About 60% of its 23,000 virus-related deaths and more than half of its total infections have been recorded since early April. Its hospitals have been invaded. Only 4 percent of the population has been fully immunized.
And yet, on Wednesday, Bangladesh, a country of 165 million people, lifted much of its lockdown. Banks, stores and malls have been allowed to reopen. Buses and trains will resume service at half capacity. They follow the clothing industry, the mainstay of the economy, which reopened two weeks ago.
Health experts fear the lifting of restrictions will only worsen the epidemic.
“If we reopen everything despite the increase in infection, we will suffer more terrible consequences,” said Benazir Ahmed, epidemiologist and member of the government’s vaccine advisory group.
Bangladesh has deeply felt the pain of the shutdown of its economy. Despite the country’s great strides in lifting hundreds of thousands of people out of poverty, at least 24.5 million people have been pushed there by the pandemic, according to an April study.
Government advisers said the country’s leaders had no choice but to reopen. “It is not possible for the government to keep the country locked up forever,” Mohammad Shahidullah, chairman of the government Covid-19 committee, told local media on Wednesday.
Health experts say that by reopening the country after less than three weeks, officials are effectively shifting the responsibility to individuals. The government ignored their advice last month, they say, when it eased an earlier lockdown for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha, sparking large-scale events that caused infections to spike. Millions of people gathered in buses, cattle markets and malls and gathered for prayers and festivities.
“The infection rate was high when the facility was announced, defying the warning of experts, and we are seeing the result now,” Dr Ahmed said.
Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government said hospitals across the country were “in dire need of intensive care”. The authorities rent hotels and create makeshift hospitals to treat patients.
“We can no longer increase the number of beds in our hospitals,” Health Minister Zahid Maleque said on Saturday. “Citizens must now do their part to lower the rate of Covid-19 infection.”
In the capital, Dhaka, one of the most densely populated cities in the world, ambulances sound their sirens as they transport patients seeking beds, oxygen and intensive care. Some hospitals have put up signs saying, “We’re sorry. No bed is available.
Kakoly Akhter, six months pregnant with her fourth child, arrived in Dhaka late last month to seek treatment for Covid-19 after his hometown hospital 65 miles away ran out of oxygen. Two days later, Ms Akhter managed to secure a bed at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, one of the city’s largest Covid hospitals. Mother and baby died a few hours later.
“If we had gotten an intensive care bed early, we wouldn’t have lost it only at 34,” said Delwar Hossain, Ms Akhter’s nephew. “She left three children behind. How will they grow up without their mother?
In the country’s remote villages, where nearly two-thirds of the population live, doctors are scarce and health infrastructure is already overloaded. Bangladesh has less than one doctor per 1,000 people, according to the World Bank, less than a quarter of the level of the United States or Britain.
Last month, Jannatul Ferdous Any, a woman in her thirties, fell ill in the town of Sirajganj. At first she just had a fever. Then she couldn’t breathe.
Her brother, Saiful Islam, took her to Sirajganj General Hospital on July 4. Three days later, the hospital ran out of oxygen for her, he said.
A hospital 20 miles away agreed to admit her and provide her with oxygen, but she couldn’t get a bed in the intensive care unit.
A week later, Ms. Any’s condition worsened in the middle of the night. She started to gasp. Mr. Islam said the last thing she told him was to take care of their parents.
“This coronavirus has taken her away from us forever,” he said. “She was our parents’ only daughter and our only sister. “
The third wave also wreaked havoc among doctors and healthcare workers. At least 180 doctors have died since April 2020, the Bangladesh Medical Association said. More than 3,000 doctors and 6,000 health workers, including nurses, tested positive for the virus on Monday, he said.
Nazmul Haque, director of Dhaka Medical College Hospital, said his biggest challenge was the understaffing.
“Many of our doctors, nurses and other workers have tested positive for Covid-19,” he said. “Some of our employees are also deceased. It was enough to break the morale of many.
Dr Shamema Akter, a doctor working in the hospital’s intensive care unit, said she knew it was only a matter of time before a third wave hit Bangladesh. Across the Indian border, where the most infectious Delta variant of the virus was first detected, the second wave overwhelmed hospitals in the spring. Bangladesh’s health ministry said the Delta variant was responsible for more than 60% of new cases.
“According to this, we prepared to work long hours,” said Dr Akter. But sometimes they’re so exhausted, she said, that they have “mental breakdowns.”
Last week, when Ms Jahan was in desperate need of a hospital bed, doctors at Dhaka Medical College Hospital advised her to have her lungs scanned. After examining the CT scan, a doctor told her 16-year-old daughter, Ms. Yousha, that one of her mother’s lungs had been severely infected but there was no room for it.
Ms Yousha said she wished doctors had taken a closer look at her mother, but didn’t blame them for the lack of beds. “We don’t want to hold anyone responsible,” she said. “It was our destiny.
Dr Haque, the hospital director, declined to comment.
Inside the ambulance, Ms. Yousha spoke to her mother to prevent her from losing consciousness. Ms. Jahan told her daughter to “forgive” her and take care of her older twin sisters, who have mental and physical disabilities.
“You have great responsibilities,” she told her daughter. ” Live together. “
A few minutes later, she could hear her mother’s breathing slow down. Ms. Yousha started reciting what she remembered from the Quran until they reached the second hospital.
The staff there took Ms. Jahan to the triage room. Within 10 minutes, they told Ms. Yousha that her mother had passed away.
“I have never slept alone. I never slept without my mother, ”Ms. Yousha said. Her aunts and uncles will take care of her and her siblings, she said, but they will always feel Ms Jahan’s absence.
“No one can take a mother’s place.”
Saif Hasnat reported from Dhaka, Bangladesh, and Karan Deep Singh from New Delhi. Fabeha Monir contributed reporting.
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