For months, we have been given false assurances that adequate measures are in place to contain Covid-19 infection in the country, with statistics hiding the real truth about Covid-19 cases and deaths and state officials spinning them to paint a rosy picture of our preparedness. Even during this past Eid holiday, we came across boastful claims by ministers about how Bangladesh has been "successful" in containing the virus. But nothing could be further from the truth—as a joint study by the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) and the International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh (icddr,b) shows. According to the preliminary findings of the study, around nine percent—or nearly 20 lakh—of Dhaka residents could be Covid-19 positive, with roughly 78 percent of them exhibiting no symptoms. The percentage is much higher than the numbers provided by the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS). As of August 10, there are only 66,630 confirmed cases in Dhaka city (more than 25 percent of the total confirmed cases). The huge gap between official numbers and figures suggested by the survey shows how the virus has silently swept through not just the capital but possibly the whole country.
This is the first such study by authoritative institutions, a stark reminder of how slow and ill-prepared we have been in checking the movement of the virus in its first five months in Bangladesh. Under the cross-sectional survey, 3,227 households were surveyed in Dhaka city between April 18 and July 5, said an IEDCR press release. The study identified 211 symptomatic individuals, and 199 of them were tested for the coronavirus using the RT-PCR testing method. A total of 435 asymptomatic individuals were selected from symptomatic households. Of them, 201 tested positive for the virus. Also, 827 asymptomatic individuals were selected from asymptomatic households, with 538 of them testing Covid-19 positive. One statistical oddity has been that of the numbers from the six slums where the survey was conducted only six percent of those tested, in 720 households, came out positive.
We shudder to think what these numbers from one city mean for the Covid-19 situation in the whole country. Unless a similar survey is conducted nationwide—which has by now become crucial—we have no way of knowing how bad the situation is. Reports already suggest that divisions with higher populations like Dhaka, Chattogram, Rajshahi and Khulna are witnessing higher numbers of Covid-19 deaths. The official response, unfortunately, still seems to be limited to testing those showing symptoms, albeit in far fewer numbers than necessary. But as the survey shows, it's equally important to track and test people without symptoms. Unless we expand our testing capacity to include all potential virus carriers and enforce a strict containment measure, the cases of avoidable deaths and infections will continue to pile up. The government must come out of its cocoon to acknowledge the reality on the ground and take measures accordingly.