With calls ringing louder for raising awareness on cleanliness and "social distancing" in wake of coronavirus infections being reported in the country every day, a large population group of the capital -- who live in cramped slums with poor hygiene standards -- appears to be largely clueless about the virus and precautions needed.
Misconceptions and the belief in a higher power were found to be common upon visits to several slums in the city over the last few days, with awareness campaigns by the two city corporations not reaching nearly enough people.
The awareness level inside the slums was found to be low, as dwellers claimed they didn't come across any significant initiatives addressing the global pandemic.
Fifty-five-year-old Shahinoor Begum, a resident of Karail slum, told this newspaper that she thought the "korolavirus" spread from "korola" (bitter gourd).
"Recently, people have started talking about this virus disease. I thought this spread from korola, so I forbade everyone in my house from buying it," said Shahinoor, who collects beef tripe from butchers and sells to wholesalers at Mohakhali kitchen market.
Like Shahinoor, a majority of people living in informal settlements have heard about the virus but have no proper information of the do's and don'ts to prevent it.
"How will I know about the risks? I live in the slum; I don't have a TV; I don't read the newspaper. Nobody told me what is happening with this virus. We do not know how deadly it is, who is at risk, what are the symptoms, and where to go if I have any symptoms," she said.
At the same slum, a 65-year-old man who has been suffering from asthma for three years, was found anxious about the virus.
"I am feeling a little bit scared but I don't know where to go. I believe my case is not coronavirus, but still," he said, on condition of anonymity.
Ranu Akter, a homemaker living in the Tejgaon Baulbag slum, said she wished people would come to them and advised what to do and what not to do. "Otherwise, we will be most vulnerable," she said.
Although experts say poor sanitation, overcrowding, and lack of hygiene materials are major factors in the transmission of Covid-19, most slum dwellers who are day labourers, small business owners, factory workers, or household help, said it is difficult for them to maintain cleanliness or avoid gatherings.
Niamat Ali, a rickshaw-puller living in Karail slum, said, "If I stay home wearing masks and doing nothing, how will I feed my family? Here, everyone works from morning till night to earn their bread."
Sabita Rani was found sitting on a garbage-filled narrow lane of Karail slum, with nine other women and teenage girls. "See, is it possible to avoid people when over 40,000 of us are densely packed here? I have two rooms where I live with nine family members. I mingle with around 50-60 people in front of my house every hour," she said.
Anu Rani, 18-year-old homemaker talked about how she has given up on keeping her three-year-old son clean at all times, as it is impossible to avoid human contact in such an unhealthy environment.
"I cannot keep him on my lap at all times since I'm busy doing household chores. Also, my son is learning to walk and he doesn't stay inside the room, rather he goes to the alleyway and plays with garbage," she said.
Like her, 35-year-old Nazma Begum, who works as a cleaner at an RMG buying house, said whenever she stays home, she tries to keep her three sons and daughter clean. But when she is out for work, her children mingle with other kids of the area and play in the alleys. "It is difficult to maintain even a minimum level of hygiene when you live in such small and congested spaces," she said.
When asked if they use masks while going out for work, Nazma said, "I wanted to buy a mask last week, but the seller demanded Tk 50 for it, so I didn't get it."
Residents of Tejgaon Baulbag slum told this correspondent that most of them were worried about the disease, even though they don't know how to prepare themselves to prevent it.
One Milon Miah was seen selling poultry with blood on his hands, while there were around fifty vegetable sellers nearby, and naked children were playing at the rail line.
Twenty-year-old Shahida said she has already bought antibacterial soap and has been washing her hands after finishing every household chore. "I'm really scared about it and trying to keep my children inside the room," she said. Ironically, her two-year-old daughter was seen at that very moment putting a piece of stone in her mouth from the rail line.
On the other hand, Iqbal Hossain of Baunia Badh slum of Mirpur said the young population, who have access to smartphones and internet, are more aware of the virus.
"Older people, like our parents, are at most risk. But they are not aware of the virus. Most of them are completely oblivious to following the instructions," said Iqbal.
A large number of slum dwellers also believe that coronavirus is a "punishment from God" to make people "do the right thing".
"People these days don't abide by religious rules and principles. God sent coronavirus for them," said 72-year-old Md Shahjalal of Tejgaon slum.
"Coronavirus won't affect the poor and we will be fine, I must say. Because Allah is with us," said Md Hridoy, a rickshaw-puller.
According to noted physician Dr ABM Abdullah, to prevent coronavirus, maintaining maximum cleanliness is key, but that is very difficult for slum-dwellers.
"Since they come in contact with a large number of people every day and live in packed shanties, they should keep their houses, hands, surroundings as clean as possible. Because, if even one person gets affected there, the situation will go out of control," he said.
"The city corporations are responsible for raising awareness. At the same time, NGOs working in the healthcare sector can conduct awareness campaigns so that they have an understanding about this," he added.
CITY AUTHORITIES NOT DOING MUCH
When contacted, Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) Chief Health Official Brig Gen Md Sharif Ahmed said they have started distributing leaflets at 75 wards through ward commissioners and five partner NGOs of the urban primary health care services delivery project (UPHCSDP).
"Apart from this, yard meetings are organised to raise awareness at the community level," he said.
Dhaka North City Corporation (DNCC) Chief Health Official Brig Gen Md Mominur Rahman Mamun said they too have directed five partner organisations of the UPHCSDP programme to distribute leaflets at the community level.
"We sat with them last week, and this week we took updates on the work. We hope they will gradually cover all areas soon," he said.
However, neither official provided details on which slums the awareness campaigns started in, or how the NGOs are implementing the programme.
However, visits to the slums and talking to residents showed that the awareness-building programmes had a long way to go before reaching them.