The more contagious and deadly Indian variant may spread across Bangladesh if the seven bordering districts that are experiencing alarming rise in Covid-19 cases are not sealed off immediately, said public health experts.
The districts are Naogaon, Natore, Satkhira, Jashore, Rajshahi, Kushtia and Khulna.
A meeting of the Cabinet Division yesterday did not decide on locking down these districts but its secretary said the local administration in these districts had been instructed to decide on movement curbs on their own.
Meanwhile, Noakhali district administration started imposing a household-wise lockdown as the virus cases increased in the region compared to the last month, said the district civil surgeon.
Prof Liakot Ali, biomedical scientist and a member of the government's Public Health Advisors Group, said if the districts are to be locked down, it has to be immediately.
He said the Indian variant has already entered the community transmission phase in the northwestern district Chapainawabganj, while a delay in deciding on lockdown for other districts will result in a massive surge in infection across Bangladesh.
He said the infection chain would be broken if these seven districts along with Chapainawabganj – where the movement curbs have already been enforced – could be isolated from the rest of the country.
"Cluster lockdowns are easier to impose and more focused on curbing the infection," he told The Business Standard.
With the movement curbs in place, Prof Liakot said, the districts will have to ramp up coronavirus testing, especially the antigen tests.
Referring to Chapainawabganj's infection rate decline to 34% from 62%, the expert advocated for engaging the people in movement curb enforcement and complying with the health safety guidelines to reap the maximum benefits.
"Bangladesh never could successfully implement a countrywide lockdown. So, we need to adopt restrictive measures focusing on the hotspots," he noted.
Health Minister Zahid Maleque also said on Monday that both deaths and infections are on the rise in the bordering areas.
"The Cabinet Division is reviewing the situation. They may be delaying [a decision on lockdown] considering the mango farmers in those districts. But we want immediate movement restrictions in those districts," he told the press after the cabinet meeting.
Mango harvesting has just begun in the north and southwestern districts. As the mango growers wait for a year for summer to reap the fruits and send those to Dhaka, the fruit as well as the financial health of the farmers have got in the way of movement curb enforcement.
"Sales in these districts amount to Tk3,000-4,000 crore. A strict lockdown will affect the farmers tremendously. Considering it, they [the Cabinet Division] are working," said the minister.
But Cabinet Division Secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam told journalists that they were yet to get the health directorate's proposal seeking a lockdown in the seven districts.
He, however, said the local administration had already been instructed to decide on movement curbs on their own.
"If the local administrations of the districts think the situation is taking a dangerous turn, they can impose lockdown on their own," he said, adding that any district-level movement restriction would force the farmers to incur a huge loss.
But Prof Liakot Ali said proper fruit marketing can help balance between the financial and health issues.
"If fruit freights are sanitised before making trips to Dhaka, less people are engaged in fruit transportations and fruit-carrying truck drivers are regularly tested, infection risks can be minimised without hampering the financial health of the growers," he said.
Dr Abu Jamil Faisal, a member of the health directorate committee that Saturday proposed imposing a district-wise lockdown, said marginal people will have to be provided with government support. Otherwise, the lockdown will not be effective.
'Lockdown will not affect mango sales'
In the wake of rising Covid-19 cases, Chapainawabganj's district administration imposed movement curbs on 24 May. The restrictions have been extended for another week until 7 June in the district – which is often called the "mango capital" of Bangladesh.
"The lockdown will not affect the seasonal mango trade," Chapainawabganj Deputy Commissioner (DC) Md Monzurul Hafiz told TBS Monday.
The district had been witnessing a brutal surge in the virus infection since the Eid celebrations in mid-May as the virus curve in the capital started to decline.
Noakhali goes for household-wise lockdown
"The number of coronavirus patients has increased in the district town as well as in the upazilas," said District Civil Surgeon Dr Masum Iftekhar on Monday.
"A union-based committee has been formed in every upazila to lock down households with positive cases," he added.
At least 101 people have been detected with coronavirus in the last 24 hours until Monday as the new infection is at 29.36%.
In Noakhali, 121 people have died from Covid-19 so far as 8,536 people were tested positive with the infection.
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