Locals staged a day-long protest as the government moved to set up a temporary quarantine facility in the area
For a long time, the 16-storey Kunjalata building at Diabari area of Dhaka had housed nothing but dust in it.
Cleaners walked into the building on Friday morning to sweep the apartments so that Bangladeshi returnees from abroad could be housed there for a 14-day quarantine period – the suggested stretch of time to determine if somebody is infected with the coronavirus or not.
But residents of the 64 adjacent buildings – mostly retired and in their fifties and sixties – gathered in front of the building on Friday to protest the move.
They feared the coronavirus might spread to them if the building is used as a quarantine facility.
"No isolation camp in residential area," they chanted throughout the day.
After heated arguments with law enforcers standing by the gate of the building, they spread out mats on the ground and lay down.
"This is a residential area… our home. The lives of the residents will be in jeopardy if they [returnees] are kept here," said Mokhtar Hossain, who was leading the protest.
Developed by the Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (Rajuk) in Uttara, the buildings are occupied by about 500 families.
Mokhtar Hossain, who has been living in the area since February, complained that the project director had not discussed the plan of setting up a temporary quarantine camp with them.
"We learnt about the matter after the ISPR [Inter-Services Public Relations] issued the announcement on Thursday night," he said.
Senior officials of the police and army and the Rajuk project director appeared at the scene amid the ongoing protest and assured them of all-out precautionary measures that would prevent the virus from spreading out of the temporary camp.
But the protesters were not convinced.
"I live with my family here, including my grandson. I would like to ask whether you would live here even after knowing the risks," Projit Kumer Roy, a retired police official and one of the residents, told The Business Standard,
"Why this residential area? Why not somewhere else?"
After lunchtime, female residents also joined the protest. They formed a human chain and cordoned off Rajuk Chairman Md Sayeed Noor Alam as he tried to calm down the protesters.
Moments after, as the protesters refused to calm down, he gave up and walked into the Kunjalata. The chairman remained confined there until evening.
He denied allegations that the residents were not informed prior to the move, and told the press that the army would ensure that nobody gets infected from the camp.
"The flats are yet to be allocated to the owners. So, the entire Kunjalata is vacant," Noor Alam said.
Lt Col Abdullah Ibn Zaid, director of the ISPR, said the decision had been taken by the government.
"The prime minister is also aware of the temporary quarantine project at Diabari. We will talk to the locals until they feel assured. We think they will understand the national crisis," said Lt Col Zaid.
In the meantime, respiratory medicine specialist Prof Dr Md Azizur Rahman told The Business Standard that coronavirus is too heavy to drift in the air.
"There are zero percent possibilities for transmission of the virus from one building to another. People can be infected only if they come within three feet of another infected patient," said the professor.