Clamour for hand sanitisers leaving manufacturers breathless
Perhaps the most sought items today are hand sanitisers and alcohol-based hand rubs, once rarely used, as people scramble to protect themselves from the lethal coronavirus.
And the situation has gotten so dire that one has to knock counter after counter of convenience stores and pharmacies to get either of them.
"It appears that I will have to check pharmacies in other areas," said Farhad Alam, an undergraduate student of computer science of Bangladesh University, after failing to secure even one hand sanitiser after calling in to ten pharmacies on the Satmasjid Road.
At Jafrabad, half a kilometre away from where Alam was looking for the hand sanitiser, another man in his 20s wore a frantic look: he was returning home empty-handed after checking out all five pharmacies in his neighbourhood for the no-rinse hand wash.
After official disclosure of detection of coronavirus in Bangladesh on March 8, the demand for the items have spiralled out of control for even the manufacturers and importers of the items.
Most health officials and disease specialists say one of the best preventive measures against the coronavirus or any other outbreak is frequent washing of hands, using soap and water to scrub fronts, backs and between fingers for at least 20 seconds.
If soap and water are not available, health professionals say, then hand sanitiser can be used, as long as it contains at least 60 per cent alcohol and the gel is squirted onto the hands and rubbed briskly all over them for about 20 seconds.
Regardless, people can't stop seeking out for hand sanitisers.
Even after ramping up production and distribution hand sanitisers are going out of stock as soon as the stores are putting them out on the shelves, said Jesmin Zaman, head of marketing of Square Toiletries, which sells 'Sepnil' brand hand sanitisers.
Square is now making 10 tonnes of hand sanitisers daily and supplying to the market without any delays.
A month ago, Square could sell at the most one tonnes of hand sanitisers.
"Even in January, five to 10 lakh people in Bangladesh were aware of hand sanitisers at best."
But suddenly, millions of people were looking for the item.
"We have the machinery. We are increasing our production capacity with as much raw materials and packaging materials we are getting," Zaman said.
The correspondent got hand sanitisers in 7 out of the 17 establishments visited in Dhamnondi. And they were mostly in the supermarket chains.
And save for one, the brands that were found available were less known even a week ago. Some have started making hand sanitisers recently, while some firms are trying to make some good margins from the newfound business opportunity for the hygiene item.
Yet fast imports are not possible as flights to and from import destinations such as China have become infrequent.
"My supplier informed that he would be unable to take any responsibility in case of flight delays," said Abdul Mannan, who was trying to buy some hand sanitisers from China. He runs a store in the port city of Chattogram.
He said imports by sea is time-consuming and businesses are not sure that the heightened demand would persist once the supply arrives.
But imports have increased recently, he said.
Yet supply has been too low to meet amplified demand.
Khulshi Mart, a standalone supermarket in Chattogram, could hardly sell 240 pieces of hand sanitisers in a year, said its procurement manager Mohammad Aurang Zeb.
"But in the last 10 days, we sold more than 5,000 of them. The demand is so high that we can't meet them," he said.
Khulshi Mart is selling one hand sanitiser to each customer in order to ensure a higher number of people can get the hygiene product for personal and family protection, just like many supermarkets in Dhaka.
In Lavender in capital's Gulshan area, hand sanitisers were kept behind the till, and one customer is allowed one.
A shopper was seen asking for five small packs of hand sanitisers at the counter of Wellbeing Pharmacy at Dhanmondi. But he was sold three.
In the Unimart store beside the pharmacy, no hand sanitiser was seen on the shelves. "It is all finished for now," said a salesperson of the store.
However, hand washes were available on the shelves. But there was a tag that read that only two pieces per customer were allowed.
The salesperson said the store will put a limit on hand sanitiser to one each customer once supply comes through, she said.
"By rationing the items, we will be able to serve many more customers," said Rasad Kabir, manager of operations of Unimart's Dhanmondi branch.
A similar scenario was seen at Meena Bazar and Shwapno on Dhanmondi 27.
No hand sanitiser was on the shelves. One could get limited quantity but from behind the counter.
"We are doing this so that all can get and one cannot hoard the scarce items," said Sabbir Hasan Nasir, executive director of ACI Logistics that owns the supermarket chain Shwapno.
Shwapno, the country's biggest supermarket chain, is also restricting the number of 50ml bottles of alcohol-based hand rub, Hexisol, for each customer.
Nasir also urged people to avoid buying excess quantities of other essentials amid the panic.
"We want to assure that there will be no crisis of products," he said, adding that Shwapno will also consider limiting the sales of rice to prevent stock piling.
Alcohol-based hand rubs are mostly used in hospitals by medical professionals, said M Mohibuz Zaman, managing director of ACI Healthcare.
"The demand went through the roof. We are now delivering five times more than before," he said.
ACI, which accounts for more than 90 per cent of the hand rub market, increased its production capacity to make nearly 100,000 pieces of hand rubs daily.
"We are trying our best, but the demand is just too high to meet."
All manufacturers have expanded their capacity.
"The pharma industry is trying to produce as much as possible and trying to purchase a higher amount of raw materials," Zaman added.
Seven local manufacturers are producing hand rubs now, according to Mostafizur Rahman, director of the Directorate General of Drug Administration.
They are producing hand rubs in three shifts now after DGDA director general held meetings with the manufacturers.
Currently, more than 5 lakh pieces of hand sanitisers are made daily.
"We have given permission to four more companies to make sanitisers and hand rubs and also gave import permission to seven firms. As we have sufficient manufacturers and production capacity, the crisis that has been created temporarily would be over," said Rahman, adding that DGDA will also fix the prices.