Bangladesh has now 19 labs for a population of 16.5 crore of which ten are in Dhaka. None of the rest nine are in any of the virus hotspots
From Saturday night, Sathi of Narayanganj was in sheer panic. For her it was now a question of life and death.
Her husband was detected with the novel coronavirus about ten days ago and was taken to Bangladesh-Kuwait Friendship Hospital in Dhaka.
That left her to take care of herself with her two small children and her elderly mother-in-law.
And now, seven days after her husband's hospitalisation, she and her two children had developed the tell-tale signs of the coronavirus.
She knew it too well, because she had seen her husband suffer and then finally being shifted to hospital. She and her children had fever, cough and diarrhoea. On Saturday night, they found their breathing becoming difficult.
Since they had developed the symptoms, Sathi had been trying to contact the hotline for tests. But, no one came. And she did not know where to go in Narayanganj for the test. She called some acquaintances and got a disheartening message: There is no testing facility in Narayanganj, although it is a hotbed for the virus.
On Sunday morning, she finally begged somebody to send her an ambulance and the three of them left for Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) at Dhaka for testing.
While she was on her way to Dhaka, The Business Standard called her. She was distressed and said she would call later. She did not.
This is how people suspected to have been infected with the virus in the pandemic hotspot of Narayanganj are suffering. Until Sunday, a local organisation in Narayanganj used to collect 20 samples every day and bring them to Dhaka for testing.
Starting Sunday, the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) has started collecting samples.
At this time, Narayanganj is a scary place to be sick with Covid-19 without the lab facilities where 386 people have been infected and more than 26 died so far, official figures say.
However, the Narayanganj City Corporation has a different version. It says 85 people died here after showing coronavirus symptoms, but they do not count in the official tally as none of the dead was tested.
Like Narayanganj, two more virus hotspots i.e. Gazipur and Narsingdi have no testing facilities. They too have to travel all the way to Dhaka, and many just avoid the journey because of the great hassle of the commute and the even longer wait at the queues at the testing centres.
The Business Standard talked to another Narayanganj businessman Farhad Hossain, 38. He tried the hotline and the city corporation for four days after he developed the virus symptoms. Finally the city corporation men came on April 17 and collected his blood to be sent to Dhaka. Until Sunday, he does not know the result.
Such delays have devastating effects.
Khairul Alam, a musician in Narayanganj, died on April 7 and only after his death was it known that he had coronavirus.
The dire condition of Narayanganj was conveyed to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina on April 16 by the residential medical officer of Thanpur Hospital through video conference.
He said considering the huge population of Narayanganj and that so many people from abroad have taken refuge here, the city urgently needs a PCR lab. This could identify the patients fast and help isolate them.
Additional Deputy Commissioner of Narayanganj Selim Reza told The Business Standard that the setting up of the testing lab is under process.
Textile and Jute Minister Golam Dastagir Gazi is setting up a lab on his own initiative at Rupganj. But that would hardly help Narayanganj as the distance is quite far.
Bangladesh has now 19 labs for a population of 165 million of which ten are in Dhaka. None of the rest nine are in any of the virus hotspots.
Additional Director General of the health directorate Prof Nasima Sultana told The Business Standard that it is a lengthy process to set up a lab and it requires a lot of equipment, all of which have to be imported.
"We are trying our best to do whatever we can," she said.
ASM Alamgir, principal scientific officer of the IEDCR said, "Now the upazila health officers and the civil surgeons collect the samples from the hotspots and send those to the IEDCR."
He claims the authorities are collecting samples on a large scale from those spots.
Following an order from the DGHS, a 25-member team from Dhaka reached Narayanganj on Sunday to collect samples from the coronavirus hotspots in the district. They will collect samples from the city and the Sadar upazila in the next 10 days.
Meanwhile, a non-government organisation named GKG Healthcare has set up booths at two schools in Narayanganj under the supervision of the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) for collecting samples from patients.
Noted virologist Prof Nazrul Islam told The Business Standard, "A lab should have been set up in Narayanganj by planning carefully earlier. But, as setting up a lab takes time, task forces should be formed in the hotspots."
"The job of the task forces will be to prevent the spread of the coronavirus in those areas. They will focus only on those hotspots. We should form task forces quickly in Narayanganj, Gazipur, Narsingdi,and Savar," said Prof Nazrul, a former vice-chancellor of the BSMMU.