Bangladesh’s Capital Lifts Lockdown To Celebrate, Exasperating Experts

DHAKA, Bangladesh — Unemployed construction worker Mohammed Nijam knew he was risking acquiring the coronavirus while waiting for a boat out of Bangladesh’s capital among hundreds of other travelers, but he thought it was worse to stay in Dhaka with another lockdown approach.

“Even though I have no employment, I have to pay rent every month,” he claimed, adding that his landlord had been harassing him for money as he was trying to feed himself. “I’d rather go back to my village and live my life as God allows.”

Nijam is one of the tens of millions of Bangladeshis who are shopping and traveling this week as the government allows a contentious eight-day respite in the country’s stringent coronavirus lockdown in honor of the Islamic festival Eid al-Adha. Health experts have slammed the suspension, warning that it may aggravate an ongoing outbreak driven by the highly infectious delta strain, which was originally discovered in neighboring India.

“There is already a shortage of beds and ICUs, and our healthcare providers are fatigued,” said Be-Nazir Ahmed, a public health specialist and former director of the government’s Health Directorate. “So, if the situation worsens and more people arrive at hospitals, dealing with the issue will be nearly impossible.”

Because of the virus’s rapid spread, almost everything in Bangladesh was shut down on July 1st, from marketplaces to public transportation. Soldiers and border guards scoured the streets, arresting and detaining thousands of people who had broken the lockdown.

Despite the new limits, daily viral fatalities remained around 200 and daily infections remained around 11,000, both of which were considered to be undercounted. There were 225 fatalities and 11,758 illnesses recorded on Sunday.

Despite expert warnings and with only about 4 million of the country’s 160 million people fully vaccinated, the government announced that all restrictions would be lifted and everything would be reopened from July 15 to 23, allowing people to celebrate the festival, which is normally a boon to the economy.

“However, individuals must be attentive in all situations, use face masks, and rigorously follow health instructions,” according to a government policy statement.

Officials from the government have not responded to criticism of the move. When contacted for comment, a representative from the Ministry of Public Administration, which issued the order halting the lockdown, pointed The Associated Press to the policy statement. A spokesman for the Health Ministry did not respond to calls or emails.

Farhad Hossain, a junior minister in the Ministry of Public Administration, told local media on Saturday that the lockdown needs to be relaxed because the festival is a big business.

As a result, many have flocked to malls and marketplaces in the capital to complete their holiday shopping, while others have flocked to ports and bus terminals to get to their rural hometowns.

In May, an estimated 10 million of Dhaka’s 20 million citizens went to rejoice with their relatives for the final important Islamic holiday. A comparable number of people might travel this week, especially since many people, like Nijam, the construction worker, maybe planning to stay in their communities until the next lockdown.

Shah Alam, a dental technician, was among the large number of people shopping at Dhaka’s New Market.

“We are coming to marketplaces to buy basic commodities since the government has softened the situation for a few days,” Alam remarked. “We are attempting to adhere to the health and safety regulations.”

The major hazards of lifting the lockdown, according to Ahmed, are people from the city transmitting the virus to their communities and people spreading the infection when shopping in markets, particularly cattle markets, where millions of people will purchase animals to sacrifice for Eid al-Adha.

“It’s possible that hundreds of thousands of cow markets could be set up across the nation, from distant villages to cities, and the cattle dealers and others involved in the industry would primarily come from rural regions, potentially bringing the virus with them,” he added.

According to his estimations, 30 million to 40 million people would attend the event on Wednesday, praying in mosques or open fields around the country.

He predicted that the Eid congregations would be a “super spreading phenomenon.”

The month after the festival, he added, will be crucial for a country that has already seen over 1.1 million infections and almost 18,000 fatalities as a result of the pandemic.

“It’s possible that we won’t be able to avert a disastrous situation,” he added.

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