An upward trend of the Covid-19 infection is being noticed in the border areas of the country. Many bordering districts have witnessed a sharp rise in cases following an alarming upsurge in India. Lockdown has already been enforced in Rajshahi, Satkhira, Chapainawabganj and in a few other distrcts. While this is the case, some immediate actions need to be taken to control the transmission.
The sudden spike in the border areas shows that the movement of people could not be restricted despite the border closing with India. Many people are travelling through the border informally. Any sort of official quarantine or isolation is not possible as the government does not have any data of these people. Rather, there remains a concern as these people will be spreading the transmission in the community.
Besides, the presence of the Delta variant, popularly known as the Indian variant has been detected. The Indian variant was detected from the samples collected from Dinajpur, Gaibandha, Bagerhat, Jhenidah and Pirojpur. Out of 16 samples collected from Chapainawabganj, 15 were Delta variants. The Indian variant was also detected from the samples of the Dinajpur district. Among the Delta variant infected patients, many of them did not go abroad or did not meet with people with travel history. This shows that community transmission of the variant has already started.
Before the situation gets worse, some strict measures should be taken by the government. One alarming part is that people crossing borders informally cannot be detected. Along with tightening the security in the borders, people travelling informally need to be identified. Although the government does not have their information, these people can be traced by the local community, especially in the rural areas. Since the people in rural areas are closely linked with each other in their community, one can easily tell about others' travelling history. It is seen that compliance is very low among the people in border areas. At best, 5-10 per cent of people wear masks which is a matter of concern.
The number of tests is very limited in the border areas. As a result, there is a chance of spreading the infection. Less tests mean less detection of the virus and that leads to infected people mixing freely with the community ultimately causing more people to get infected. So, antigen testing should be made more available in border areas. Community engagement should be strengthened to create awareness among the people. Since the ventilation system is better in rural areas, not wearing masks may not be extremely worrisome. However, mask wearing should be made mandatory for closed and crowded spaces like haat, bazar, public transport etc. By engaging the bazar committee in the awareness campaign, mask wearing, hand sanitising, maintaining minimum distance etc should be monitored. Besides, the healthcare system is very weak in those remote areas, even at the Upazila level. The hospitals are unable to provide emergency support. Since our health system is very centralised, the patients will have to travel to cities to get emergency medical support.
If the government plans to enforce a lockdown to manage the situation, it should be imposed early. Enforcing lockdown where the majority of the people are infected will not be of much help.
The mango farmers in Chapainawabganj and northern areas are facing huge problems due to the lockdown. The agriculture office has said there is no restriction on mango trade. This is a welcome move as economy of those districts is heavily dependent on that. Now what can be done is strictly monitoring if the businessmen comply with the health safety rules like mask wearing, hand washing etc. Also the local authority should make sure that mass people do not take advantage of this opportunity and go out freely. People other than the businessmen should not be allowed to get out unnecessarily.
Massive surge of coronavirus as in India can be a significant threat for a small country like ours. Having a densely populated country and a fragile health system, it will be impossible to tackle the situation. However, some experts believe that in Dhaka, and in other big cities, a great number of people might have been infected already which explains recent slow down of cases in these areas. In addition, in urban areas, mask wearing and compliance with other safety norms are slightly better. Therefore, the situation might not be worse in the big cities. However, this can only be ensured by antibody testing. This way we can understand the real situation. If a locality has 70-80 per cent antibody, there is a little chance that the locality will be affected badly again. Mass level antibody testing can help prioritise areas for interventions.
Till now, the situation in Bangladesh may be said to be under control. Hence, to handle the situation, maintaining health safety rules should be made mandatory. Along with urgent attempts to get vaccines as soon as possible, steps should be made for other public health measures.
Shafiun N. Shimul is Associate Professor of the Institute of Health Economics, University of Dhaka.
Shafa Tasneem is a third year student of the Department of Economics, University of Dhaka.