When the Covid-19 infection rate is slowing down in Bangladesh, the United Arab of Emirates (UAE) has expressed concerns over the rising number of coronavirus positive cases among passengers travelling from the country.
Even though Bangladeshi passengers have been travelling to the UAE with Covid negative medical certificates obtained from the health authorities, they are testing positive for the coronavirus after arrival there. This has given rise to questions over the quality of testing standards in Bangladesh.
The General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) of the UAE has sent a letter to Biman Bangladesh Airlines in this regard, bringing the issue to the government's attention.
In its letter sent on 14 October, the GCAA said there has been a significant rise in the number of coronavirus positive passengers arriving from Bangladesh over the past few weeks.
The passengers have been detected Covid-19 positive in PCR tests conducted on international passengers upon their arrival in the UAE.
PCR tests are used to directly detect the presence of an antigen in the body, rather than the presence of the body's immune response or antibodies.
The UAE civil aviation authority also said it was not only Biman that was carrying such passengers but all other airlines operating passenger flights from Bangladesh had passengers who tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in the UAE.
The GCAA requested the air operators to closely monitor the situation and work with the health authorities to limit the movement of such cases and ensure safe and continued passenger travel between the UAE and Bangladesh.
Asked about the matter, Md Mokabbir Hossain, managing director of Biman, said, "Obtaining a certificate saying the passenger is Covid-19 negative is mandatory for travelling to the UAE and Biman is carrying only those who have negative test reports."
If a passenger holding a Covid negative certificate tests positive after arriving in the destination country, that should concern the health authorities who are issuing the reports, he added.
When contacted, Dr Habibur Rahman, spokesperson for the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS), ruled out misperceptions about the standard of Covid testing in Bangladesh.
Acknowledging that there might have been some cases where a passenger who tested negative in Bangladesh tested positive in the destination country, he said such instances are not unusual because the testing system has some limitations which are internationally recognised.
"The validity of a test report has been set at 72 hours to make it more accurate. Still, there are chances of re-infection or developing symptoms in these three days," he argued.
It is not that only passengers flying from Bangladesh are testing positive elsewhere, he said, adding if Bangladesh tests arriving international passengers, the results will be the same, he added.
"A Covid-19 negative report is mandatory for entering Bangladesh but no further test is conducted on arriving passengers. If it had been done, many positive cases could have been detected," he added.
Dr Abul Khair Mohammad Shamsuzzaman, director of the National Institute of Laboratory Medicine and Referral Centre, which issues most test reports for international passengers, said there is no scope for raising questions over the testing standard in Bangladesh.
Claiming that the chances of a negative case turning positive within 72 hours of the test are little, he said, "We have not received any such complaints involving tests conducted by our organisation, as yet."
Meanwhile, aviation industry insiders said the rising cases of Bangladeshi passengers testing positive for the coronavirus in destination countries is earning a bad reputation for the country, making it difficult for expatriate workers to enter Middle Eastern countries – the biggest labour hub in the world.
Shameem Ahmed Chowdhury Noman, secretary general of Bangladesh Association of International Recruiting Agencies (Baira) said this might result in an embargo on Bangladeshis working abroad.
He held travellers responsible for testing coronavirus positive after arriving in the destination country. "Travellers barely follow health guidelines after obtaining a Covid-19 negative certificate. This raises the chance of contracting the virus during the time between the tests at home and in destination countries," he said.
He asked for stricter government measures, even introducing penalties, to make travelers follow health guidelines in the period between obtaining a negative test report and boarding the aircraft.
The International Air Transport Association (IATA) has demonstrated the low incidence of inflight Covid-19 transmission with an updated tally of published cases.
Since the beginning of 2020 there have been 44 cases of Covid-19 in which transmission is thought to have been associated with a flight journey (inclusive of confirmed, probable and potential cases).
Over the same period, some 1.2 billion passengers have travelled with airlines, according to research by IATA released in October.
Biman resumed commercial flights to two destinations in the UAE, Dubai and Abu Dhabi, from 13 and 14 July respectively with mandatory Covid-19 test certificates for passengers.
Around 1.50 lakh Bangladeshis working in Middle-Eastern countries got stranded in Bangladesh during the pandemic situation, according to Baira.
The Covid-19 positivity rate in the country came down to 11-12% in September, which had earlier reached a peak of 30% in the preceding month.
Even though the Covid-19 infection rate has slowed down in Bangladesh, it has been rising around the globe, marking a second wave of infections.
In recent times, Bangladesh has also been experiencing a slight rise in the infection rate.