Bangladesh returns to lockdown from Monday as the government on Saturday announced that it would use the biggest non-pharmaceutical weapon for a week to enforce social distancing measures as a means to curb the dangerous surge in Covid-19 cases.
The second lockdown within a little more than a year comes at a time when businesses are making a steady recovery from the shock caused by the pandemic shutdown last year and people have become optimistic about return to normalcy with the launch of vaccination.
That hope for a roaring comeback has now been nipped by the alarming upswing of fresh cases of infections. With new cases making daily records last week, the calls for avoiding crowds, social gatherings, and public places are largely being ignored while hospitals are on the brink of being overwhelmed.
The slow supply of vaccines from external sources has prompted the government to think over putting the first dose vaccination on a pause from 5 April to make sure the second dose goes smoothly as planned from 8 April.
For the government, it is a catch-22 situation.
Enforcement of a further lockdown had been in talks, and it came true when Road Transport and Bridges Minister Obaidul Quader disclosed it in the media yesterday.
He said the government will impose a seven-day countrywide lockdown from Monday to slow the spread of the dreaded virus.
This time around, the restrictive measures, however, are not as harsh as they were last year.
The news of the lockdown made low-income people worried as those who are daily wage earners will face difficulties earning their livelihoods when people's movement is curtailed for the enforcement of social distancing measures.
Health experts, however, want a strict enforcement of the social distancing rules to prevent people from making trips to shops, restaurants, venturing out on the streets, or piling in on transports. In their views, a half lockdown cannot work effectively to contain the spread of the virus.
It is not clear yet whether the lockdown will end after seven days or will be extended. Last year, the shutdown enforced in the form of general holidays was extended several times and continued for 66 days starting on 26 March.
The Cabinet Division has prepared a draft of the restrictive measures that will be in effect during the lockdown. According to it, there will be restrictions on movement and gatherings while all kinds of economic activities will remain open.
During the seven-day lockdown, the government will strictly control the inter-district movement of passengers.
Production and supply in all kinds of industries and services, including export-oriented industries, will remain open. All kinds of shopping malls, markets, and stores will remain open till 6pm.
The restriction will not apply to freight traffic on roads and waterways while the Bangladesh Bank will give necessary instructions to keep the banking system open.
Attendance at state-owned, private, and autonomous organisations has been asked to be reduced to a third. Sick, elderly, and female employees will not go to office, but no one can leave the workstation during the restriction.
Intra-district buses and flights will continue to operate with 50% passengers. International passenger movement by land, air, and sea will be restricted while passengers from abroad will have to be quarantined as required.
All kinds of meetings and gatherings have been restricted. Virtual meetings have to be held in case of emergency.
All places of worship will remain open but attendance will be kept to a minimum. A maximum of 10 people can attend Friday prayers at mosques while the limit will be five for all other prayers.
Emergency goods and services, health workers, and journalists will be out of the purview of the restrictions.
The Cabinet Division said fresh restrictions on people's movement had been imposed considering the overall situation to keep economic activities open on a limited scale and to protect citizens' lives.
It said there would be check points at the entrances and exits of each district while district administrations would control people's movement carefully with the help of law enforcers.
During the lockdown, people must stay indoors. No one can go out from 8pm to 6am, except for urgent needs, such as purchasing and selling necessities, commuting to and from work, purchasing medicine, receiving medical services, and burying dead bodies.
In all situations when going out, hygiene rules have to be adhered to, including wearing masks.
Offices, employees, and vehicles associated with law and order situation, state security and intelligence agencies, emergency services, healthcare, electricity, water, fuel, fire services, ports, and other emergency and essential goods and services will not be affected by the restriction.
The restriction will not apply to the transportation of agricultural products, fertilisers, seeds, pesticides, food, industrial products, goods for government projects, and kitchen market items as well as drug stores, hospitals, emergency services, and workers associated with these.
Doctors, nurses, health workers, vehicles carrying medicine and medical equipment and their workers, and media and cable TV workers will be out of the purview of the restriction.
The pharmaceutical industry, agriculture and the sectors associated with its production and supply, manufacturing and export-oriented industries, and mills and factories will be allowed to remain open and health safety measures will have to be maintained.
No educational institutions or coaching centres can be kept open during the restriction, but online courses or distance learning will continue.
The movement of vehicles engaged in the transport of cash, including private security services and their security guards, will be outside of the purview of the restriction.
Md Enamur Rahman, state minister for disaster management and relief, told The Business Standard people would not suffer much financially during the seven-day lockdown.
"Despite that, the prime minister has given us instructions and we are prepared accordingly."
He said Tk450 crore would be provided in assistance to 1.09 crore families in Ramadan on the occasion of Mujib Year.
"Besides, we have disbursed Tk121 crore among deputy commissioners so they can offer assistance if any poor family is in financial trouble. Another Tk300 crore has been allocated for this and the extra amount will be disbursed if required."
Kashimpur Central Jail authorities said they would not allow anyone to meet inmates till further notice.
Railways Minister Md Nurul Islam Sujan said all types of passenger trains would be suspended except the ones transporting essentials.
Bangladesh Securities and Exchange Commission said transactions in the stock market would continue if banks remained open.
KM Khalid, state minister for cultural affairs said the book fair will be shut down and the decision would come today (Sunday).
Bangladesh Small and Cottage Industries Corporation directed all its factories to continue production with a 50% workforce, except for those providing emergency services.
It asked factory owners to ensure that pregnant and sick employees as well as those over 55 stayed home and still got paid.
Flights on domestic routes would be suspended from Monday and the decision was made at an inter-ministerial meeting on Saturday, said Civil Aviation Authority of Bangladesh Chairman Air Vice Marshal M Mafidur Rahman.
But flights on international routes would not be suspended, he told The Business Standard after the meeting.
Meanwhile, a mad rush began on Saturday after the lockdown was announced as many Dhaka dwellers started to leave for their country homes. Many rushed to bus and launch terminals as well as railway stations to grab tickets for their families.
Professor Md Sayedur Rahman, chairman of the Department of Pharmacology at Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, told The Business Standard the authorities should ensure that people did not move from one place to another due to the lockdown.
He said movement would have to be totally blocked and big cities would have to be cut off to prevent the spread of the virus in villages.
The professor also said people would have to be supplied with food and face masks.
He further said infections could not be checked with a one-week lockdown.
"To this end, the lockdown would have to be extended by two more weeks and people would have to be tested."
What economists say
Executive Director of Policy Research Institute Ahsan H Mansur said the government had learned its lessons from the previous lockdown.
He said the authorities had taken initiatives to reduce infections by controlling people's movement while keeping economic activities undisrupted this time.
"The government is deliberately going for a selective lockdown so that people's lives are not disrupted. This will prevent people from moving to villages."
The economist said the government should strictly enforce the lockdown to curb infections.
Speaking about the lockdown's impact, he said there would be some effects on the common people.
He also said the government could distribute food among daily wage earners in cities and those running street shops.
"This time, the lockdown should not be extended for long. Markets should be fully opened at least 10 days before Eid. Businesses have made large investments ahead of Pahela Baishakh and Eid. If there is no business on Eid, the small and medium enterprise sector will not be able to turn around," explained Ahsan.
The expert said it had been a logical decision to keep factories open.
"Last year, infections were low among garment workers and the virus spread more at markets and social programmes."
Professor Mustafizur Rahman, distinguished fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue, said the impacts of the pandemic would be greater if the current rise in infections continued.
"In this situation, there is no scope to calculate financial losses to be caused by the lockdown. Rather, the lockdown is needed to protect the economy in addition to people's lives."
He said those living from hand to mouth without any savings would be in big trouble, adding that there should be measures to provide food assistance to the extreme poor so they would not starve during the lockdown.
"The government has low food stocks. But it can supply food on an emergency basis for seven days."
Mustafizur said the economy had not yet recovered from the effects of the first lockdown and the fresh seven-day shutdown would further aggravate the situation.
"The impacts of Covid-19 will linger in the industrial sector even after the lockdown. Cash assistance is needed to recoup these losses," he said.
The economist said workers in the micro, cottage, and small industries feel the initial shocks of lockdown and self-employed people also lose their earnings.
"The government will have to take initiatives so that income of workers in such informal sectors is not stopped during the seven-day lockdown."