''This virus is unforgiving. We must remain vigilant, persevere and be patient, ready to ramp up measures as and when needed"
Bangladesh is ahead of only war-torn Afghanistan in containing the spread of the coronavirus among the South Asian countries, though the region remains relatively less vulnerable to the contagious disease.
Even with the low scale of testing, over 11 persons are being found positive per 100 tests in Bangladesh while the number is 22 in Afghanistan.
Nepal and Bhutan fare much better with a less than one percent infection rate. India has been able to keep the infection rate at 3.8 percent. Their successes are the result of effective social distancing measures enforced by lockdown.
For example, Bhutan banned tourists immediately after detection of the first case in early March. Nepal did the same. The two countries still have zero deaths.
In contrast, Bangladesh wasted precious time to suspend air flights even after detection of its first case in the first week of March. Returnees from affected countries were allowed to enter the country till the end of March. Insipid quarantine measures turned into futile exercise. Eventually a toothless shutdown was put into effect from March 26.
A month later, the government formally eased the restrictions allowing RMG factories to resume their works even amid the virus scare. Workers tested for the virus are coming up positive. Last Friday, seven RMG workers tested positive in the Savar area.
In the meantime, people are returning to the capital in hordes. The lockdown seems to have broken down much before its targeted end on May 5. The government is likely to extend the general holidays till May 16. Easing the lockdown restrictions seems to have resulted in spiking new cases. Bangladesh has today reported 665 cases, the highest daily number till date.
Just next door, India had enforced the lockdown at the same time as we did. Last, on Friday it announced to ease some restrictions only for those areas having zero cases or no cases for the last three weeks. It extended the lockdown by two more weeks for the areas where infections are spiking. No major cities will see ease of lockdown in the next two weeks.
India's latest guidelines seem rational. But our authorities have allowed reopening of factories in wholesale manner in Dhaka, Gazipur, and Narayanganj – the areas that already proved to be infection hotspots.
It seems we are fast running out of options and patience because of the dire economic situation. The shutdown induced moribund economy has thrown millions of informal workers out of work. It has now become clear that Bangladesh, like any other country, cannot continue the lockdown for an indefinite period.
But the extent and nature of the battle against the pandemic deserve a careful examination of the current situation before easing the lockdown restrictions that should not be eased until the curve is flattened.
This is a battle like no other battle in history. Whatever hard fought successes we see are temporary and not sustainable because of the nature of the virus.
This is why China, South Korea, Vietnam and New Zealand cannot claim a conclusive win in this battle even after their success in largely curbing the spread of the virus through massive testing regimes and strictly enforced social distancing measures.
Even then, they now fear resurgence of the virus. Epidemiologists have warned that the second wave would come after easing of the strict physical distancing rule. A resurgence of a large number of cases in Singapore has proven it already.
The fact is, there is no real end to this battle unless the world can develop a vaccine which may take a year. Latest studies say the virus may last as long as two years.
We have to have the patience, strength and resources to fight a second and third wave too in the coming days as epidemiologists continue issuing notes of caution. They have warned that the second wave would be even more dangerous than the ongoing first wave.
They have been citing the example of the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic to underscore their points. They see many similarities between the Spanish flu and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic in their severe impact on public health.
Both are respiratory diseases, spread by breath and touch as well as, to some extent, via surfaces. Both are caused by viruses, and both are highly contagious.
Both are what are known as "crowd diseases", spreading most easily when people are packed together at high densities – in favelas, for example, or trenches.
The 1918 flu pandemic claimed at least 50 million lives, or 2.5 percent of the global population. It washed over the world in three waves.
A relatively mild wave in the early months of 1918 was followed by a far more lethal second wave that erupted in late August and receded towards the end of the year. In the early months of 1919, there was the third and final wave that was intermediate in severity compared to the other two.
In the second wave of the pandemic, the vast majority of the deaths occurred in the 13 weeks between mid-September and mid-December 1918.
It was a veritable tidal wave of death – the worst since the Black Death of the 14th-century – and possibly in all of human history.
This was one reason the historians agree that the pandemic hastened the end of the First World War as both sides lost so many troops to the disease in the final months of the conflict.
In the current first wave, the coronavirus pandemic has already killed more than two lakh people and infected another three million people rampaging across the globe.
So far, Europe has been worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
As European countries announced to ease the lockdown measures after flattening the curve, WHO on Thursday warned that Europe remains "very much in the grip of this pandemic."
"Today the European region accounts for 46% of cases, and 63% of deaths globally," regional director Dr Hans Kluger said.
Although Europe is seeing evidence of a "plateau or a reduction" of new cases since the introduction of social distancing measures, the WHO warned against complacency.
"This virus is unforgiving. We must remain vigilant, persevere and be patient, ready to ramp up measures as and when needed," Dr Kluger said.
The Bangladesh eased the lockdown restriction without having the curve being flattened.
The way people are returning to the capital and factories are opening gives indication that we are heading for herd immunity either in planned or unplanned way.
The Spanish flu record says the US states that had lost patience and eased the lockdown measures prematurely paid heavily during the second wave which was more dangerous than the first wave. Their economic recovery was slow as the pandemic had killed many and left numerous workers sick.
On the other hand, the states that enforced strict lockdown for more than two months recovered from the economic shock faster.
Bangladesh authorities need to decide their course of action carefully considering all aspects of the menace of the pandemic as Dr. Kluger said "we must remain vigilant, persevere and be patient ready to ramp up measures as and when needed."
Nobody wants a repeat of the painful part of the pandemic history.