The calamity known as the Coronavirus or COVID-19 has resulted in an unprecedented shutdown of schools, markets and the normal life in general across the planet. It has already brought miseries to the people of Bangladesh - where concern keeps growing over whether an epidemic can be kept at bay.
One of the most, if not the most at-risk groups are thought to be capital Dhaka's homeless and slum-dwellers, the urban poor.
Known as the ninth-largest and sixth-most densely populated city in the world with a population estimated by the UN at over 21 million (the last census held in 2011 put it at 9 million), Dhaka is dealing with its 3,394 overcrowded slums where people have almost zero knowledge about the contagious virus and ways of protection to keep themselves safe from the impact of this new hazard.
A majority of these poor people have been living in the urban slams or places such as the bus-rail stations for years in the city, mostly working as day-labourers, rickshaw-pullers, tea-stallers, CNG auto-rickshaw drivers, housemaids, small business-owners, mass-transport workers, street hawkers or garments workers.
"I was coming home in the evening from my office in Dhanmondi, which is located not far away from where I live in Mohammadpur. A rickshaw-puller asked me if I was willing to have a ride, and when I refused, the rickshaw-puller started bursting out in tears. Upon asking, he said he needs to earn at least Tk 1,000 a day for his ailing mother, but only managed to earn Tk 350 after hard work of the whole day as people are barely moving out from their houses in these days," Suraiya Laboni, a banker, told UNB.
Although the virus had captured the entire globe's attention ever since its outbreak and Bangladesh is no different having reported its 5th death officially on Wednesday - a large section of these slum-dwellers and the floating population had to put the fear of COVID-19 aside, as they feel they must go out and earn their bread.
"Ever since the virus started becoming viral in society, our daily income has minimised automatically in a drastic way. People are staying at home, but I do not have that luxury to maintain the 'quarantine' as I have a family of five members to feed," Rashid, a local bus conductor, expressed his helplessness.
Public health experts, sociologists and development practitioners continue to warn that the millions of slum dwellers and others often categorised as the 'floating' population could be the most potent spreaders of this virus, and authorities must take necessary steps to ensure their hygiene and food so they can limit their movements and practise social distancing without the worry of putting food on the family's table, as part of the measures to prevent a COVID-19 epidemic in Bangladesh.
Besides , the panic buying of the middle- to upper-class consumers with the ability to stock necessary goods in large amounts has also had a devastating impact on the people with lower incomes. "The regular price of coarse rice went up to Tk 46-48 from Tk 36-38 within a week. We are going to die in famine if we do not go out for work," housemaid Nazma Begum told UNB.
A large number of these unfortunate people live in city slums of Mirpur, Karail, Kafrul, Adabor, Badda, Kamrangir Char, Hazaribagh, Uttar Khan, Pallabi, Bhasan Tek, DakshinKhan, Darus Salam, Demra - just to name a few - where they do not have proper sanitisation system for everyone, even not the regular utilities, including electricity, gas and water.
As a result of their unhygienic mass gathering in the name of their regular livelihood, the contagious virus can easily spread among a massive number of people who basically move all over the city on a daily basis.
Leave alone WHO's guidelines on how to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or how to wash hands and when to wear masks, about which most of these people have zero idea - they are obviously not practising social distancing in their overcrowded, cheek-by-jowl dwellings.
"A bar of antiseptic soap is ranged between Tk 30-40 and a bottle of liquid handwash is over hundred Tk - too much for poor people like us," housemaid Nazma Begum expressed her helplessness.
Alongside the slum dwellers, a huge chunk of the floating population is visible on the streets of Dhaka every day who live on begging from people, and have absolutely no idea regarding personal hygiene. "We barely can eat, and you are talking about hygiene," Ramiz, a homeless boy who lives around Mohammadpur bus-stand, said angrily over the virus panic that shrank his regular intake of alms.
As the country gradually retreats into 'lock down' mode - i.e. enforced social distancing - to starve the virus of the hosts it needs to replicate, the livelihoods of these teeming millions - Dhaka's urban poor, perhaps upto a third of its population - have fallen into jeopardy.
Some innovative social welfare organisations such as Bidyanondo have taken admirable initiatives to provide sanitisation-products, including handwash liquids, soaps and hand sanitisers along with groceries for a period, but much more needs to be done by many more, including awareness-raising, which presents a complex problem during times when people are expected to keep their distance, and written literature might not work.
"We have already ensured food for 70,000 people through fundraising, and our target is to help 200,000 (2 lakh) people" - Bidyanondo posted on their verified Facebook page. That still leaves tens of lakhs of people left to their own devices.
A number of experts have said during a viral pandemic, in a city such as Dhaka, if one segment of the population starts witnessing community-based transmission of the disease, it will be very difficult to stop it from invading the rest of the city.
Even more so if that segment happens to be the 'floating' population.