The coronavirus, now declared a pandemic by WHO, has created panic around the world, and Bangladesh is no exception. As soon as the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) confirmed the first cases of coronavirus in the country on March 8, the people—worried, apprehensive and fearful—lined up at the checkout counter of various pharmacies and superstores to hoard as many bottles of hand sanitisers, disinfectants and surface cleaners as they could. Soon, supplies of masks along with the disinfecting essentials ran out. People, after all, wanted to make sure they had everything they needed to protect themselves against the disease.
While talking to this writer, a superstore manager said that all the hand sanitisers their store had were sold within hours. But is it enough to just hoard disinfectants?
Dhaka, a bustling city of millions, is the perfect breeding ground for diseases. The biggest problem this city poses is its flaws in urban planning. According to the 2013 Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS), Dhaka has more than 5,000 slums, inhabited by more than four million people. These communities are neither well aware of the do's and don'ts to prevent the coronavirus, nor are they financially equipped to implement them. According to the MICS, 75 percent of them live in small, one-room accommodations in the slums, and in case of a coronavirus outbreak, most would not be able to maintain the three-feet safety distance that people are being advised to maintain between them.
"In case there is a breakout of Covid-19 in a slum, the authorities should immediately cordon it off, take the affected people to a hospital, and screen every single person entering or leaving the slum with a scanner," said Architect and Urban Planner Salma A Shafi, who is also the general secretary of Centre for Urban Studies, Dhaka.
According to her, in case of its breakout in the country, a lot of the slum-dwellers might leave Dhaka and go to their native places to wait out the disease. In case this actually happens, it will make the overcrowded slums more habitable and less prone to Covid-19.
But those using public transport like the crammed local buses for their daily commute would not be able to protect themselves against the sneezes or coughs of the infected people, putting hundreds of thousands of lives at risk of being infected.
And among these underprivileged people are those who work as day labourers, workers and household help, who would potentially carry the virus to the doorsteps of the more affluent who have hoarded the hand sanitisers and disinfectants.
However, for now, it is important that the authorities conduct awareness drives specifically targeting the underprivileged people, including slum-dwellers, to make them aware of the disease, its symptoms and what they can do to protect themselves and their loved ones. Government agencies, NGOs and international donor agencies and private corporations can also consider distributing hand sanitisers and disinfectants among the underprivileged people, while also educating them on how to use them. Some private-sector entities have already started awareness drives, but more should follow.
While accommodation of the underprivileged remains a problem, what is perhaps more concerning is the pervasive medical waste mismanagement that this newspaper has so often reported on, both inside and outside the capital. The scenario today remains as miserable as it had been before.
According to a report by this daily titled "Hospitals breach disposal rules" published on November 23, 2019, "In the capital city alone, there are over 1,000 healthcare facilities that generate around four tonnes of medical waste daily." But do they all end up in the designated places?
According to that report, almost all private entities providing healthcare services have signed an agreement with a local NGO that supports medical waste disposal. According to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) enforced agreement, the hospitals are supposed to segregate medical waste into different categories—infectious, sharp and recyclables—and keep them at a designated point from where the NGO will collect them. But an investigation by this newspaper found that many of the hospitals had no record of such waste in their logbooks. One hospital, for instance, had generated no infectious, sharp or recyclable wastes in October and September of 2019, or for that matter in previous months of the year! When asked about the empty logbooks, the hospital authorities could not come up with any concrete answer.
That being the case, how do the authorities plan on managing medical waste of the people infected with coronavirus? Given the highly contagious nature of this virus, a transparent and honest monitoring mechanism would be required to make sure medical waste ends up in the right place. But can this be ensured? That remains to be seen.
Given the infrastructural limitations of Dhaka, fighting coronavirus would be a challenge. But Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, in postponing the birth centenary celebrations of the Father of the Nation, has not only demonstrated wisdom and farsightedness, she has also demonstrated a strong political will to protect the people from the havoc that this disease of pandemic proportions can wreak. This will must be demonstrated by all parties involved in the fight against the disease. This also includes the people of the country, a section of whom in a knee-jerk reaction resorted to selfish means to protect themselves, not realising that in times like these it is the protection of the whole community that ensures collective safety.
While coronavirus is a belligerent disease—easy to spread but difficult to control—it is preventable. And in the face of an outbreak of the disease, what we need are exhaustive checklists—the kind one prepares before an event to make sure all the minute details are covered—in order to make sure the collective plans are watertight and strong enough to nip the threat in the bud.
The nation should brace itself for a pitched battle against Covid-19. But at the same time, let's not forget how resilient this nation is. This is not the time for panic. It's time for planning and preparation.
Tasneem Tayeb is a columnist for The Daily Star. Her Twitter handle is: @TayebTasneem