Coronavirus Outbreak in Bangladesh: Screening still lax at Dhaka airport
12:00 AM, March 10, 2020 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:54 AM, March 10, 2020

Coronavirus Outbreak: Screening still lax at Dhaka airport

A few minutes before 2:30pm yesterday, a Biman Bangladesh Airlines flight from England's Manchester landed at the Dhaka airport.

As the passengers were walking towards the airport's health desk, some of them looked puzzled when officials, standing next to the thermal scanner, asked them to submit filled-in health declaration forms. 

They said they were neither given those forms nor briefed about any precautionary measures against the coronavirus outbreak while they were inside the aircraft.

The form contains information on passengers, including their recent travel history and whether they have fever, shortness of breath, nausea, headache or cough.  

The Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), however, maintains that all the airlines had been directed to provide those forms to passengers and instruct them to submit those to the health desk. 

Manchester, a city in the northwest of England, had five confirmed coronavirus cases as of Sunday, according to the website, www.gov.uk.

Passengers of a SpiceJet flight from Kolkata arrived at the Dhaka airport's health desk around the time the flight from Manchester landed.

As they were crossing through the thermal scanner archway, a DGHS official was checking their body temperature using a hand-held infrared thermometer. Four other officials were seen providing health declaration forms to the passengers.

"We are providing health cards to passengers if they hadn't got those already," Jahirul Islam, assistant health director at Hazrat Shahjalal International Airport (HSIA) told The Daily Star there.

While he was speaking, many passengers were seen leaving the desk without submitting the filled-in forms.

It was evident that the few health officials were struggling to do the screening in a disciplined way, as around 50 passengers gathered in front of the desk at a time.

All the health officials were wearing masks, but only one of them was in a disposable apron. Only two of them were wearing hand gloves.

When Virologists' attention was drawn to the matter, they said those protective gears were not enough to prevent coronavirus infection, and the health officials run the risks of getting infected with coronavirus. The virus then may also spread to others, they said.

Asked, Jahirul said, "We wear special PPE [personal protective equipment] in case of any serious situation. We don't have enough supply."

There was only a small bottle of hand sanitiser at the health desk. None of the passengers were using it.

Besides, these correspondents were at the airport for around two-and-a- half hours, but they did not see any sort of disinfection activity. 

Airport sources said there has been no disinfection activity whatsoever at the HSIA.

To make the matter worse, passengers from different countries, except China, were seen using the same immigration booths. 

So far, the novel coronavirus has infected more than 109 countries with 1,11,354 confirmed cases of infection. Among the infected, 3,892 have died and 62,683 have recovered.

Most of the cases were reported in China. Outside China, Italy has faced the worst outbreak with 7,375 confirmed cases and 366 deaths.

Bangladesh has so far three confirmed cases -- two males and a female. Two of them returned from Italy recently.

Covid-19 -- the seventh strain of the virus that was first detected in China's Wuhan city in December -- can hide inside human body for up to 14 days without showing any symptom, according to WHO.

Unlike in Bangladesh, some of the major international airports have taken preventive safety measures against the spread of Covid-19.

For example, the Prague airport in the Czech Republic has designated separate gates for all passengers arriving from Italy, one of the heavily infected country.

Airline crew flying to and from South Korean airports are being offered hazardous-material suits, in addition to disinfecting planes more frequently, after the first case of coronavirus infection was reported in South Korea.

EXPERTS' TAKE

Terming the screening measures at the Dhaka airport lax, experts said any loophole could be costly.

They stressed the need for keeping passengers from countries with high number of infections separated from others at the airport.

"The screening process should be vigorous. A slight oversight could turn costly," Prof Muzaherul Huq, former regional director of WHO's South East Asia region, told The Daily Star.

Prof Saif Ullah Munshi, chairman of the department of Virology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, said, "Passengers from countries with high number of passengers must be screened separately. Besides, all planes and luggage of the passengers should also be disinfected. Otherwise, the existing screening would not work."

"Honourable prime minister has directed a halt to providing Bangladeshi visa to people from coronavirus-hit countries. We had been pressing for it from the beginning," he said.

Despite repeated attempts, DGHS Director General Prof Abul Kalam Azad could not be reached over phone for comments.

In the meantime, the aviation keeps suffering a massive blow in the aftermath of coronavirus outbreak as the number of outgoing and incoming air passengers from Dhaka has tumbled, officials said.

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