After Dhaka, low coronavirus testing and insufficient hotlines in the port city of Chattogram ring alarm bells as civil society members say hiding information about the extent of the outbreak may result in a grave situation.
The Bangladesh Institute of Tropical and Infectious Diseases (BITID) conducted only 34 tests for COVID-19 since the test was introduced on March 25 in Chattogram — a city with a population of more than 26 lakh.
The BITID lab can run 40 tests per day while only 5 tests were carried out per day on average in the last week.
Furthermore, Chattogram residents alleged that they could not get through on the coronavirus hotlines even after trying for hours. On top of that, neither the BITID nor the Chattogram civil surgeon's office could confirm how many calls were made on the hotlines till date.
Mahim Uddin, a resident of Chattogram's Muradpur area, works for a travel agency. He has been suffering from flu and fever since Friday last.
Mahim tried the two BITID numbers on Saturday and Sunday, but in vain. On Monday, he finally got through to a doctor on the hotline who asked him a few questions and then hung up.
The doctor told me that I will be reached. But, no one contacted me since then, said Mahim.
Like him, many Chattogram residents vented anger on social media over not receiving any service from the hotlines. They alleged that those two numbers remain busy almost round the clock.
"We send the test results to Dhaka. Moreover, we receive a huge number of phone calls every day. BITID does not have the exact number of people that we have responded to through the hotlines," said BITID Director MA Hasan.
Hasan claimed that the doctors were responding to people who seek coronavirus tests.
"We collect samples after considering the person's symptoms and other factors, otherwise we do not collect it [sample]."
"Besides the virus, we have to attend to other patients. We have an acute shortage of manpower. Therefore, it is not possible to record the number of hotline calls," added the BITID director.
Meanwhile, the head of BITID's microbiology department, Dr Shakil Ahmed, said the bio-safety lab has sufficient manpower and modern equipment to run 40 tests a day.
"We also have enough testing kits in stock. But the lab is not receiving more than eight samples a day," claimed Dr Shakil.
The Chattogram civil surgeon's office introduced a hotline for coronavirus after opening a COVID-19 testing facility in the port city.
But, Chattogram Civil Surgeon Dr Sheikh Fazle Rabbi says they just forward the calls to the BITID.
"We did not keep a record of how many calls we handled," he added.
The World Health Organisation (WHO) in mid-March told coronavirus-hit countries, "We have a simple message for all countries: test, test, test. Test every suspected case."
The residents of Chattogram are concerned because the BITID seems to be overlooking the WHO note. "The virus may spread rapidly because most suspected cases are not being tested," they said.
"We are discouraging testing while developed countries are running thousands of tests every day," said Sachetan Nagarik Committee Chattogram chapter President Akter Kabir Chowdhury.
"The low number of tests could be the reason for few coronavirus cases being identified till now," commented the civil society member.
"The total number of people who called on the hotlines should be disclosed, and they should be placed under observation. This will make it easier to detect people who are more susceptible to COVID-19. Otherwise, hiding information may have an adverse outcome," Akter Chowdhury added.
The port city is yet to report any case of coronavirus. On Tuesday night, a woman died at the BITID isolation unit. However, the cause of her death was still unclear till Wednesday. A total of 150 beds have been kept ready for coronavirus patients in two hospitals in Chattogram.