DHAKA: Bangladesh’s strained health care system is reeling under the country’s third and deadliest wave of the coronavirus, doctors say.
They fear that worse is to come as the government has lifted much of its lockdown to save the economy.
About 60 percent of the country’s nearly 24,000 virus-related deaths and more than half of its total infections have been recorded since the beginning of April. A lockdown imposed late in July aimed to stop the spread fueled by the delta variant but was eventually lifted on Wednesday.
Offices, banks, shops, restaurants and malls were allowed to reopen, more than a week after garment factories, the number one industry in Bangladesh, resumed operations, despite mounting pressure on the country’s health infrastructure.
But government officials and advisers say that the country had no choice but to reopen.
The economic fallout of the pandemic has already pushed more than 24.5 million Bangladeshis into poverty, according to an April study by the BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD), increasing the country’s rate of poverty to more than 40 percent from 20 percent before the outbreak.
“Any country in the world couldn’t continue a lockdown at a stretch for a longer period considering the livelihood of the people,” Dr. A.S.M. Alamgir, principal scientific officer of the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), told Arab News on Friday.
“We also had to remove the lockdown restrictions to ease the people’s suffering.”
The easing of lockdown, however, comes as the country is running out of hospital beds to treat the ill, whose numbers are increasing. Out of the country’s 16,000 COVID-19 beds, more than a third are in Dhaka. Health Minister Zahid Maleque said on Thursday that no more beds were available.
“Of the 6,000 coronavirus beds in the capital, both public and private, not a single one is empty,” he told reporters. “If the virus continues to spread, the country will face significant issues.”
A 1,000-bed COVID-19 field hospital opened in Dhaka last week is already filling up.
“Around 100 of our beds are already occupied. The number is increasing every day,” Dr. Nazmul Karim, additional director of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, which runs the facility, told Arab News.
Intensive care units (ICUs) in Dhaka, which has the highest infection rate in the country, have been overrun, forcing some hospitals to turn away emergency patients.
“We receive patients from across the country, the pressure on our hospital is always very high,” said Nazmul Haque, director of Dhaka Medical College, the country’s largest government-run health facility.
“At the moment we don’t have any vacancy in ICU or in general wards. We are asking the patients’ relatives to go to some other places.”
The pandemic is also taking a toll on doctors and healthcare workers.
“Every day our doctors and nurses are also getting infected with COVID-19,” Haque said.
Some of the staff have died as well. According to the Bangladesh Medical Association, more than 180 doctors have lost their lives to COVID-19 since April 2020.
Health experts have warned of the imminent risk when the government ignored their advice and eased its earlier restrictions in mid-July to allow millions of people to return to their hometowns for the Eid Al-Adha holiday. The move led to a surge in infections.
The new relaxation in restrictions is raising similar concerns, as only 5 million people out of the country’s population of 167 million have been fully vaccinated.
Prof. Dr. Benazir Ahmed, former director of the Center for Disease Control, told Arab News that the country’s infection rate, which is currently more than 20 percent, should be at least four times lower.
“We are not in a comfortable situation unless the infection rates come down below 5 percent,” he said. “It’s a very risky decision at this moment.”