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'Unprepared' Bangladesh confirms first coronavirus cases

Caritas health chief warns that an epidemic would be difficult to contain in the overpopulated country

'Unprepared' Bangladesh confirms first coronavirus cases

A man wearing a face mask amid fears of the spread of the coronavirus walks past a banner with a picture of Bangladesh’s founder Sheikh Mujibur Rahman in Dhaka on March 9. (Photo: Munir Uz Zaman/AFP)

Three people have tested positive for coronavirus in Bangladesh, the first confirmed infections of the deadly virus in the South Asian country.

The confirmation comes as health experts said the country was badly prepared for a Covid-19 outbreak.

Two men and a woman, aged 20 to 35, were confirmed infected on March 7 and were undergoing treatment in a hospital in capital Dhaka, Prof. Meerjady Sabrina, director of the state-run Institute for Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), told reporters on March 8.

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The two infected men were from the same family and had returned to Bangladesh from Italy recently, while the woman contracted the virus through contact with one of them, she said.

All patients were in a stable condition and will remain in isolation until their recovery, Sabrina said.

“One of them had a temperature of 99 degrees Fahrenheit, one had fever and cough, and the other had only cough,” she said, urging people not to panic.

Health experts, meanwhile, have disputed government claims that it is ready to battle the disease, citing a lack of coordination and inadequate protective gear including test kits.

Prof. A.K. Azad, director-general of the state-run Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), said the government has about 3,000 test kits provided by the World Health Organization but many more are needed.

A local company will provide government personal protective equipment and in most cases private hospitals will have to manage their own, Azad said.

Bangladesh’s first coronavirus infections come just days after the Chinese ambassador warned the country of the danger and criticized preparations to battle the virus and described the screening systems at airports “unsatisfactory.”

“Almost 95 percent of new coronavirus cases are being detected outside China, yet Bangladesh is only screening passengers arriving at airports from China,” the ambassador, Li Jiming, said on March 4.

The ambassador urged the government to screen everyone entering Bangladesh via airports, ports and land borders to detect and stop an outbreak.

A coronavirus epidemic would be difficult to contain in overpopulated and poorly prepared Bangladesh, said Dr. Edward Pallab Rozario, head of health programs at Catholic charity Caritas Bangladesh.

“Our country has a huge population and many areas are remote and isolated. Bangladesh is not only the capital Dhaka or some specific areas. If we have only one institution [the IEDCR] with a few thousand coronavirus identification kits, the government claim of being well prepared, this is not true,” Rozario said.

“Most deaths related to coronavirus infection have been due to severe pneumonia. In such cases pneumonia patients have serious breathing problems and they need ventilation support in an ICU (intensive care unit) for survival. In Bangladesh, we really don’t have enough specialized doctors, equipment and manpower to support infected people.” 

Bangladesh’s failure to close borders, stop unrestricted movement of people and install effective thermal scanners at ports of entry show a high degree of negligence, Rozario noted.

“If we are not adequately prepared and alert, there are risks of an epidemic in this country that we won’t be able to control,” he warned.

Protection rush, stock market crash 

The government has a four-tier emergency response plan for Covid-19 and the country has been put on level-2 alert after first detections, according to the DGHS.

The alert level will rise with more infections and level-4 would mean the country has an epidemic.

As the news of coronavirus detection spread on March 8, a public frenzy started in capital Dhaka and other cities to collect protective face masks and hand sanitizers, triggering a price hike five to six times higher.

Dhaka Stock Exchange, the country’s main stock market, had recorded a freefall of 167 points or 3.88 percent, the highest in months, on the day of the first coronavirus infections.

As the fear of the virus gains stem, the government has scrapped a plan for a mass public gathering in Dhaka on March 17 to mark the birth centenary of Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, Bangladesh’s founding leader and father of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of the ruling Awami League party.

Tens of thousands of people and many foreign guests including heads of state were scheduled to attend the program.

The inaugural ceremony for the year-long celebrations of Mujib Borsho (Year of Mujib) will be rearranged and held at a later date, Kamal Abdul Naser Chowdhury, chief coordinator of the program, said during a news briefing on March 8.

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