For weeks now, the nation has been obsessed with one set of numbers: how many confirmed cases of coronavirus and how many have died?
But there is a whole other set of numbers the public needs to start paying attention to: how many ventilators do we have in this country?
Ventilators blow oxygen into the lungs of patients suffering from severe pulmonary stress and are essential for saving the lives of the sickest COVID-19 patients.
Bangladesh has just 1,250 ventilators -- 500 in public hospitals and 750 in the private ones -- according to Md Aminul Hasan, director for hospitals and clinic at the Directorate General of Health Services.
If the pandemic spreads, the country with more than 16 crore population will need at least 25,000 ventilators, said AM Shamim, managing director of Labaid Group, which owns a chain of private hospitals.
But ventilators are in short supply at the moment, given the rate at which the lethal, pneumonia-like virus is spreading across the globe. And in recent weeks, countries around the world have been scrambling to build and buy as many of them as possible.
Although regular manufacturers like Medtronic, Philips, Draegerwerk and Getinge said they have boosted their production, big names of other industries such as General Motors, Airbus, McLaren and Dyson have offered their engineering expertise or factory lines.
At the time of writing, the total number of confirmed cases of coronavirus around the globe stand at 740,157 and the total number of deaths 35,097.
One of the options available to Bangladesh is to explore scope of getting the device brought in from China, where the number of COVID-19 cases have dropped.
And another way is to explore the scope of making ventilators locally and develop manpower by training to run the devices properly.
The government is on this course and has enlisted the service of local tech giant Walton to manufacture it with support from Medtronic.
"We have already had a huge chat with the Medtronic team, which is run by an iconic Bangladeshi expatriate Omar Ishrak, and they have assured us to help in manufacturing ventilators in our country," said Zunaid Ahmed Palak, state minister for the ICT division, yesterday in an online press conference.
Palak with this team attended a video conference on Saturday with the research and development team of Medtronic and they have assured to share their source code.
"We are very hopeful to get their source code and patent by Wednesday and might go for manufacturing within the shortest possible time."
The junior state minister said he has already informed the prime minister of the development and spoke with the health minister over phone.
"It will be a huge mileage for Bangladesh," Palak added.
Access to Information (a2i) programme under ICT division is coordinating the issue and with its help Walton has already applied before the directorate general of health services yesterday, Golam Murshed, executive director of Walton, told The Daily Star.
Other than ventilators, Walton said it is planning to manufacture a few other medical devices like UV disinfectant, goggles, shield, respiratory mask, oxygen concentrator and PAPR.
Walton has also applied to import the components for the life-saving machines.
About 50 local engineers have already started work on this project, Murshed said, adding that the company can begin manufacturing the goggles and protective shield from the first week of April and the other equipment after that.
Another group of local engineers and physicians have developed a ventilator named Spondon recently too, said a press statement. Whether they would go into production anytime soon is undecided.
But the government though is planning to buy another 300 ventilators without further ado, according to Hasan.
"We are getting a lot of call. But none have the device anymore now," said Mohamad Saifur Rahman, manager monitoring and analytics therapeutic care of Philips Bangladesh, adding that all five portable ventilators its distributors had were sold recently.
Medical equipment sellers said nearly a dozen firms import and market ventilators made mainly by manufacturers based in the US and Europe.
And because of slow demand and relatively high cost, ranging from $10,000 to $25,000, they usually do not maintain a large inventory.
"We usually do not have ready stock. And it is supplied mainly based on order," said Shahidul Islam, director technical of Widespread Solutions, a medical equipment supplier and marketer in Bangladesh.
It may take seven to 15 days to import the devices into the country if the manufacturer has available stock.
However, getting supply from the US is unlikely right now as demand is through the roof there, he said.
But Md Maniruzzman Bhuiyan, president of the Bangladesh Private Clinic Diagnostic Owners Association (BPCDOA), is not too worried about the shortage of the lifesaving equipment.
"Only a small portion of COVID-19 patients will need ventilator support."
Some 80 per cent of the patients recover normally. Of the remaining 20 percent, the condition of five per cent among them may be critical and they may need ventilator support.
"Let us not think of the worst," he added.
The biggest preparation should be to prevent the spread of the disease by getting people to stay in, said Mohammad Mushtuq Husain, adviser of the Institute Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR).
The government should provide support to the needy so that they do not need to get out of their homes, he added.
Shamim says ventilators can still be managed if the government provides support to the private sector.
The government has given Tk 100 crore for the health sector and if the state bears half the prices of each ventilator the private sector will import a lot.
"We will import 1,000 ventilators in 15 days if the government provides subsidy," he added.
As of now, the Directorate of Drug Administration (DGDA) requested the National Board of Revenue to remove all duty and taxes on import of ventilators, said Director of DGDA Md Mostafizur Rahman.
Arif Mahmud, head of medical of Apollo Hospital that is set to renamed as Evercare Hospital, said the hospital is in the process of adding 20 more ventilators to its existing 56.
Md EE Yousuf Siddique, chief administrative officer of Square Hospital, however said having the equipment only will not be helpful.
"It requires trained manpower including trained intensivist respiratory therapists and trained nurses to run the machines," he said, adding that Square can help train human resource to run the machines.