As Shutdown Nears Ends, Bangladesh COVID-19 Cases Spike

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
200529-BD-covid-620.jpg A crowd of Bangladeshis move to get on a ferry in the outskirts of Dhaka, May 29, 2020.

Bangladesh officials on Friday confirmed more than 2,500 new coronavirus cases – the largest single-day increase here – as health experts and others urged the government to reconsider its plan to end a COVID-19 shutdown on Saturday amid soaring numbers of infections.

The new cases recorded on Friday represented a 20 percent hike from a daily record set on Thursday. Also on Friday, a public safety official said that authorities had opened an investigation into a deadly fire that killed five patients at a Dhaka hospital’s coronavirus unit on Wednesday night.

“Today we see more than 500 more new cases than yesterday. This is very alarming,” A.F.M. Ruhal Haque, a physician and former health minister, told BenarNews.

During Friday’s briefing, the health directorate reported 2,523 COVID-19 cases and 23 deaths in the previous 24 hours – topping 2,029 new cases confirmed a day earlier. Bangladesh has recorded 42,844 cases and 582 deaths since the virus was first detected in the country in March.

Globally, more than 5.8 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 362,000 have died as of Friday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.

On Thursday, the government announced that the two-month shutdown – referred to locally as a “public holiday” – would not be extended after May 30. The announcement included “restricted openings” of government offices and public transportation, maintaining certain protocols including social distancing and wearing masks.

“In consultation with experts, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina has decided not to extend general holidays, and resume public transports with conditions aiming to keep the livelihoods of the people smooth apart from protecting their lives,” Obaidul Quader, the general secretary of the ruling Awami League, told state news agency BSS.

Dr. Kamal Hossain, a leader of the opposition alliance National Unity Front, criticized the move.

“The decision to reopen the offices and public transportation is a big mistake. This will further increase the number of coronavirus infections in Bangladesh,” he said in a statement issued Friday.

Haque expressed similar concerns about the nation moving too quickly to lift the shutdown, as he pointed to a limited effort to return to normal earlier this month.

“The economy, though on a limited scale, and mosques were opened after May 8. So, this peak was the consequence of opening market places and mosques,” Haque said, adding “our only solace is that the number is lower than other countries.

“The coronavirus has been mainly concentrated in Dhaka and the capital region, but people who traveled home for the Eid al-Fitr celebration could have spread the virus across the country. So we are likely to see another surge of coronavirus cases in other parts of the country after 10 to 15 days,” he said.

Ahead of the lifting of the shutdown, two ferry stations near Dhaka – Shimulia and Paturia – were filled with Dhaka-bound passengers, Shafiqul Islam, an official at the Shimulia ferry station, told reporters.

“The ferries were packed with people who did not practice social distancing,” he said.

On Friday, the IMF approved a U.S. $72 million emergency pandemic loan for Bangladesh, the 60th loan provided by the crisis lender since the COVID-19 pandemic began undermining the global economy, AFP news agency reported.

Hospital fire investigation

The fire and civil defense services under the Ministry of Home Affairs, meanwhile, has started an investigation into the blaze that killed five patients at the United Hospital, a private and upscale medical care facility in Dhaka, an official said.

“I took my mother for treatment. But the hospital gave us her body,” Md. Alamgir, the son of victim Khodeza Begum, 70, told BenarNews on Friday. “Talking to the hospital officials, I am convinced that the United Hospital authorities did not try to save my mother and the other patients from the fire.”

He said he wanted an investigation to determine what caused the fire that led to the deaths of his mother and four others.

Dr. Shagufa Anwar, the hospital’s director of communications and business development, told BenarNews that all five patients were in a COVID-19 unit.

“I do understand how much pain the deaths inflicted on each of the family members of the victims, but their allegations are not true,” Anwar told BenarNews. “What I can say that we have set the coronavirus unit at the hospital to treat the patients amid the lockdown-like situation in Bangladesh.

“Many of the allegations hurt us, make the doctors, nurses and health workers feel demoralized as they have been working round the clock to serve the patients,” she said. “I would urge people to be rational while raising questions about sincerity. We are committed to saving lives, not to killings.”

The fire ignited when an air conditioner exploded in a shed belonging to the hospital, fire service official Kamrul Hasan told the Agence France-Presse news agency.

Lt. Col. Zillur Rahman, a fire and civil defense official, said he was heading a five-member team investigating the fire.

“We have already started the investigation. Hopefully, we will finish it in the next seven days,” Rahman told BenarNews.


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