After a long hiatus of two months, public transport – buses, trains and launches – will start moving again from May 31, but they have to keep half of the seats empty, a condition the government has set as part of health safety measures against the novel coronavirus.
The government has also decided to open offices to ensure the livelihoods of the people and stimulate the economy of the country. From May 31, all government, semi-government, private and autonomous offices will resume operations on a limited scale.
Public transport and offices have remained inoperative since March 26, when the government enforced a shutdown to rein in the spread of the deadly virus.
Every vehicle has to maintain health regulations related to passengers. Buses, trains and launches must have hand sanitisers at their entrances and passengers must wear masks.
No vehicles will be allowed to operate if they violate the government's health safety guidelines. The law enforcement agencies will strictly oversee the implementation of the government's directives.
Khalid Mahmud Chowdhury, state minister for shipping, told The Business Standard that the authorities would give guidelines to launch owners on the maintenance of health regulations for passengers.
"Launch owners must not consider profit in this crucial moment. They must reduce the number of passengers by almost half," he said.
"There is no scope to increase fares. We will sit with the owners tomorrow (Friday) to decide everything," the junior minister added.
Md Shamsuzzaman, Director General of Bangladesh Railway, told The Business Standard that the railway ministry had taken a decision to reserve two seats against each ticket. "That means we will carry half the number of passengers."
The railway minister will provide details about the instructions through a press conference on May 30, ministry sources have said.
Meanwhile, the public administration ministry in a gazette on Thursday said the law enforcement agencies will strictly control the operations of inter-district public transport and check posts will be set up at every entry and exit point to prevent random transport operations.
Everyone must wear a mask and nobody will be allowed to travel from 6pm to 8am if such travel is not of an emergency nature, it said.
Md Siddiqur Rahman Patwary, secretary of the Bangladesh Inland Waterways Passenger Carriers' Association, said that the organisation will hold a meeting with officials of the Bangladesh Inland Water Transport Authority on May 29 to formulate guidelines for travel related to waterways amid the coronavirus pandemic.
"We will definitely consider health issues but the government has to consider our issues also," he said.
Khondoker Enayet Ullah, secretary general of Bangladesh Road Transport Owners' Association, said the health issues of both bus staff and passengers must be considered. But it will be tough to operate buses if the government decides to reduce the number of seats allowed for passengers by half, he stated.
"However, we will meet government officials tomorrow (Friday). I think a fruitful solution will come out through the discussions," he added.
Sources at the railway and shipping ministries said they will set up detector machines at every entry and exit point. Passengers suspected to be infected with the coronavirus will not be allowed to travel on trains and launches.
Offices to reopen on a limited scale
To resume operations, officers must follow the government's health directives, which include wearing masks and maintaining social distancing.
The government will take legal measures if the health directives are violated.
Health experts are of the view that the government has failed to enforce effective health measures to curb the novel coronavirus in the country. As such, the number of patients has surged during the shutdown. And in such a situation, it will claim more lives instead of boosting the economy.
The public administration ministry, in a gazette notification on Thursday, said all government, semi-government, private and autonomous offices will open on a limited scale under their own arrangements.
The notification also says that elderly people and expectant mothers need not attend offices.
A health directive incorporating 13 points should strictly be followed to ensure the proper health of the employees. And unless it is extremely urgent or necessary, virtual presence should not be made mandatory.
"Offices will resume with a limited number of employees," Farhad Hossain, state minister for public administration, told The Business Standard.
"For instance, if there are six employees in an office, and if two of them can do the job, it is unnecessary for everyone to attend office."
"Wearing masks and maintaining social distancing should be followed," he said, adding that the situation will be observed until June 15.
"The government wants to do everything in proper order. So, we need time to create an environment in order that following health directives turn into a habit of people,"said Farhad.
"Not everything is open now. We are opening on a limited scale so that economic activities can continue. People want to work. They do not want to depend on relief to meet their protein demands. This is the reality," he further said.
Officials of the ministry said government officials who do not have vehicles will get transport facilities. Large buses will be used with a lower number of passengers, they added.
Without masks, people may face jail terms or monetary fines of Tk100,000.
The penalty is mentioned in the Infectious Disease (Prevention, Control and Elimination) Act, 2018. Therefore, the government will be strict in implementing the law, said Farhad Hossain.
According to public administration ministry officials, masks can provide protection of up to 90 percent while gloves fill the remaining 10 percent. The most important aspect is to maintain social distancing.
The people of Bangladesh are aware now and over 90 percent of people use masks.
It is a challenge for the authorities that around five to 10 percent people are not using masks, said the officials.
Some experts are of the view that Bangladesh has crossed the third or fourth stage of the pandemic. The government has decided to modify life and livelihoods by gathering experience from the rest of the world, they added.
"We do not have any concrete idea as to when medication will be available or we can be cured by taking medication," they said.
Developed countries are also thinking about their life and livelihoods.
"If we minus January, we have had four months to curb Covid-19. Though the government imposed a lockdown, it was not a lockdown at all. People were in a mood of vacation," Ahsan H Mansur, executive director of Policy Research Institute (PRI), told The Business Standard.
Besides, there were no initiatives by the government to keep people at home by imposing a curfew. So, the infection rate has increased. Also, there was no initiative to train health personnel, he said.
"In the meantime, the offices are opening without any effective measures. It will not add any pace to the economy. Employees will attend office for the sake of their jobs. But it may not save lives. Consequently, the Covid-19 infection rate will rise further, and we will be in a mess," said a worried Ahsan Mansur.
"We did not derive any benefit out of the measures here though many other governments have curbed Covid-19 by imposing lockdowns in their respective countries,"he added.
The experts also opined that handling a large number of Covid-19 patients is another problem.
The number of beds is fewer than the number of patients. Moreover, critical patients will not get oxygen. And so health workers will be unable to serve everyone.
Finally, there will be nothing to do in the situation that might eventually crop up.