‘No vaccine, no service’
The government yesterday introduced a 'no vaccine, no service' policy and a 14-day institutional quarantine for those arriving from countries where the Omicron variant has been detected, as it scrambles to put its guard up against the new potentially more contagious strain of the coronavirus.
Booster doses for those above the age of 60 and with morbidity are also being considered to reinforce the public's immunity against what the World Health Organisation labelled a "variant of concern", its most serious category.
"Many people died and our economy was hit badly -- we don't want a repeat of that episode," Health Minister Zahid Maleque told reporters after an inter-ministerial meeting yesterday at the secretariat, where the decisions were taken.
First detected in South Africa on November 25, a total of 19 countries have so far reported cases of the highly mutated variant, which is said to be better able to evade the body's immune responses, both to vaccination and natural infection, than prior versions of the virus.
Still, the vaccines will continue to ward off severe illness and death, which is why the 'no vaccine, no service' policy was put in place to encourage people to get the jabs.
"We have taken our vaccination campaign to the grassroots level but there are many who are yet taken the jabs. We have seen a drop in the eagerness among people in inoculation," Maleque said.
Bangladesh has so far vaccinated about 20 percent of its population.
The government will also be stipulating those arriving in Bangladesh present a negative RT-PCR test taken 48 or 24 hours before the flight's take-off, down from 72 hours at present. The directive will arrive soon, according to Maleque.
The Delta variant, the most aggressive strain of the coronavirus yet, had spread in the country as the government could not prevent the returnees from abroad, Maleque said, while discouraging inbound passengers from southern Africa, the epicentre of the Omicron variant.
"The health ministry can give treatment and make suggestions, but how do we prevent infected returnees if the other government departments do not cooperate? We have to take a multilateral approach."
The quarantine centre may be set up at Diabari on the outskirts of Dhaka, he said, adding that its management would be handed over to the armed forces.
There will also be about 100 hotels for institutional quarantine purposes, with the cost of the stay borne by the inbound passenger. "There will be special consideration for those who fail to pay at once," he said.
The bordering areas have also been asked to strengthen their monitoring and tests as a good number of people commute to and from India regularly.
Also at the meeting, which was attended by secretaries of 25 ministries and top officials of intelligence and health departments, instructions were given to district and field level committees to take measures to limit social, political and religious gatherings.
The committees will also monitor whether any returnee from abroad is maintaining home quarantine. If necessary, flags will be hoisted on the residences, Maleque said, while expressing his surprise over people's non-compliance to government directives.
"About 240 people came from South Africa in the last one month. Shockingly, we could not trace them. They kept their mobile switched off. We gave directives to the local administration to trace them but their addresses were also found fake," he said.
But the district administration in Brahmanbaria has been able to trace seven of the returnees and hoisted red flags outside their homes.
The Election Commission has also been asked to ensure health guidelines during the polling, Maleque said, adding that there are no plans to increase the number of in-person classes.
Meanwhile, Bangladesh has been removed from the 'red list' of India following a request from Dhaka, said Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen.