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COVID RED ZONE: Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka may have 750,000 infections

Workers stream out of garment factory in Dhaka at the end of the work day. Photo: Noor Alam

PortandTerminal.com, June 6, 2020

Ticking time bomb: Bangladesh’s capital Dhaka has an official population of 8.9 people and according to a report this week in The Economist may already have 750,000 cases of Covid-19.

DHAKA, BANGLADESH – The real number of people infected with coronavirus in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan may be far, far worse than the official national tally because of the low number of testings, says a report in The Economist (paywall).

In its report titled ‘Infections are rising fast in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan’ from Friday, The Economist says that the number of coronavirus infections in Dhaka could already be as high as 750,000.

That is a shocking number. If true, it would mean that the city of Dhaka has more infections than the second (Russia) and third (United Kingdom) most infected countries on Earth COMBINED.

The report cites the work of Dr John Clemens, Executive Director of ICDDR,B (International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh), who estimates that Dhaka, may already have as many as 750,000 cases, even though the official national tally is less than 60,000.

Clemens, as we will see later in this article, is a preeminent expert in the field and someone who’s assessment must be taken very, very seriously.

Lifting lockdown is likely to hasten spread

Street seen Dhaka. Woman begging in wheelchair. Fruit-stand. Rickshaw.
90% of Bangladeshis work in the informal sector Photo: Noor Alam

Over the past week, three South Asian nations – Bangladesh, India and Pakistan – have largely lifted nationwide lockdowns intended to curb the spread of Covid-19.

Governments in the region are under enormous economic pressure to reopen. Only 15% of Bangladeshi workers earn more than $6 a day and over 90% of them are in the informal sector. They are paid daily for their work and if they don’t work, they and their families don’t eat.

The concern though is that the lockdowns are being lifted too soon and that removing the restriction now on a region that is home to 1.7bn people—more than a fifth of humanity—will send the infection rates skyrocketing.

Garment factory in Bangladesh
FILE PHOTO: Garment factory in Bangladesh. The country has the world’s second largest garment industry after China. It normally earns $35 billion annually from exports mainly to the United States and Europe and employs about 4 million workers, mostly women from rural areas.

Officially, with some 350,000 confirmed cases and fewer than 9,000 deaths so far, the region’s toll looks relatively modest.

Yet those numbers disguise both widespread undercounting and a rate of growth that was frightening even before the lifting of restrictions.

At the current pace, the numbers are doubling every two weeks, suggesting that by the end of July, when some models predict the outbreak will peak, the official number infected may reach 5m and the death toll could approach 150,000.

Reports from on the ground

Field hospital being assembled to handle the skyrocketing number of coronavirus patients flooding into hospitals in Dhaka.
PHOTO: Field hospital being assembled to handle the skyrocketing number of coronavirus patients flooding into hospitals in Dhaka.

Hospitals are already struggling to cope to deal with the sick. Handling the number of dead is becoming a struggle now too.

Finding places in morgues, cemeteries and crematoria is now becoming a challenge in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan, according to the report by The Economist.

The municipal graveyard at Narayanganj, an industrial hub in Bangladesh, managed 575 burials in May, against the usual record of fewer than 250 burials in a typical month, it said.

But only 70 of the last month’s 575 burials were recorded as victims of Covid-19, says the report.

“There are so many deaths,” the Economist report quoted Farid Uddin, a gravedigger in Chittagong as saying.

Farid and his team have scarcely slept in four days.

“We are overwhelmed. Please pray for us so Allah forgives us and takes back this disease,” he told the Economist.

Who is Dr John Clemens?

Dr John Clemens, Executive Director of the ICDDR,B (International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh)
FILE PHOTO: Dr John Clemens, Executive Director of the ICDDR,B (International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh)

The Economist’s article relies heavily on the work of Dr John Clemens. Who is he?

Dr Clemens is the Executive Director of the ICDDR,B (International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research, Bangladesh).

He is an expert in vaccine development and evaluation in developing countries with a career spanning academia, government and international organisations.

Clemens led the team that developed the first low-cost oral vaccine against cholera, which has recently deployed in Haiti, Guinea, Thailand, and Sierra Leone, and which is now being piloted in Dhaka.

Dr. Clemen’s previous position was Professor and Vice-Chairman of Epidemiology and founding Director of the Center for Global Infectious Diseases at the University of California, Los Angeles Fielding School of Public Health. He has held similar positions at other universities both in the United States and internationally.

In 2010, Dr Clemens was awarded the prestigious Sabin Gold Medal in recognition of his work. He has published more than 400 peer-reviewed papers, and serves on the editorial boards of several international journals. He is an elected member of the American Epidemiology Society,a Fellow of both the American College of Epidemiology and the Infectious Disease Society of America, and a member of multiple WHO expert advisory committees.

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