What was a common scene even a couple of months ago – people wearing masks and using sanitisers to disinfect their hands – has now become a rarity as fear and concerns regarding the Covid-19 pandemic has mostly fizzled out.
A bus – on the route from Mirpur 1 to Jatrabari in Dhaka – picked up 37 passengers on Thursday morning, but only 13 of them were wearing masks. Even the bus driver and helper had no masks on them, and not one person seemed to care about using hand sanitisers.
This has become a common phenomenon all across the streets of Dhaka. People from districts across the country are also neglecting health safety guidelines, as revealed by our district correspondents.
Sales of different health safety products, such as masks, disinfectants and personal protective equipment (PPE), have dropped – some rather significantly – as a result, despite the government's insistence that Covid-19 guidelines must be followed to the letter until further notice.
Speaking to The Business Standard, Square Pharmaceuticals' Head of Accounts & Finance Md Kabir Reza said, "The sale of disinfectants such as hand wash and sanitisers peaked during the March-May period last year, and was multiple times higher compared to 2019.
"Disinfectants accounted for 10% of our overall sales during the peak of the pandemic, but now it has dropped to 3%-4%. Public awareness regarding the deadly virus has fallen significantly since vaccinations began."
Meanwhile, sales of personal protective equipment (PPEs) have become nonexistent. Sales of surgical and face masks have dropped too, but not as much as other health safety products, sources said.
SaRa Director Sharifunnesa Reba said, "During the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in Bangladesh, the demand for PPE was unprecedented, but now sales have plunged. We rarely make a sale from time to time.
"The sales of masks have dropped by 20%-30%. But demand for this product will go up after the schools and colleges are reopened."
SaRa is a subsidiary of the prominent apparel maker and exporter Snowtex Group.
PRAN-RFL Group's Director (Marketing) Kamruzzaman Kamal said, "Aprons, gloves and face shields are witnessing almost no sales, while sales of masks and hand sanitisers have dropped by 40%-50%. The market for such products has shrunk both in and outside Dhaka."
The Business Standard, on a recent spot visit to different pharmacies, medicine shops and departmental stores across the capital, found similar circumstances. There is still a demand for masks and disinfectants among customers, but sales of gloves, shoe covers and PPE have fallen tremendously.
"I used to sell health safety products worth Tk5,000-Tk7,000 daily, but my sales volume now barely exceeds Tk1,000 per day," said Jisan Al Sajid, who has been selling health safety products in the capital's Mirpur 1 area for the past year.
He added that the demand for face masks was the highest. "Many are using masks while commuting not only to protect themselves from Covid-19, but from dust as well," Jisan pointed out.
Unusual purchasing behavior by panicky consumers during the early stages of Covid-19 pandemic had triggered a supply shortage of health safety products in Bangladesh, while prices also skyrocketed.
But now, with supply being plentiful and demand low, the prices of such products have come down.
Masks remain the highest sought after health safety product in the country. From super shops to hawkers in buses and at tea shops, they are available almost everywhere. On Dhaka footpaths, vendors sell a pack of five masks for Tk10.
The demand for masks by brand manufacturers has gone up recently, while demand for surgical masks has gone down, said shop owners, adding that masks were also being used as fashion accessories.
According to data collected from market analysis and manufacturing companies, Bangladesh had a market demand of 5-6 crore masks per month during the peak of the Covid-19 crisis.
Initially, Bangladesh had the capacity to manufacture 60 lakh masks per month, with the rest being imported. Numerous companies, seeking to capitalise on the skyrocketing demand for masks, came up in the country during this period.
Many companies began manufacturing masks despite lacking technical expertise, and some changed their business in a bid to claim a piece of this market. The raw materials were imported from India and China.
Sales drop in wholesale markets
The Business Standard recently paid a visit to Bangladesh's largest wholesale market for medical equipment and health safety products, located at the Bangladesh Medical Association (BMA) building in Dhaka.
BMA Building Shop Owners' Association General Secretary Illius Laskar said, "The sale of health safety products had reached a daily average of Tk1 lakh during April last year. But demand for such products has steadily dropped since then.
"General customers are no longer coming to buy these products; only doctors and medical students are visiting these shops nowadays. The sales volume has dropped to only Tk10,000 per day."
Bangladesh Plastic Goods Manufacturers & Exporters Association (BPGMEA) President Jasim Uddin said, "Before the pandemic hit, we were completely dependent on China for PPEs. However, our capabilities in this sector have since increased. We are also exporting the product.
"The number of infections has dropped, and so has demand."
The use of health safety products has dropped in public spaces and streets, but masks are still mandatory in many office spaces and super shops.
The Bangladesh government has kept health safety guidelines active throughout the country. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, speaking in parliament, called upon those who had been vaccinated to continue using masks in the interest of everyone's health and safety.
Global market shrinking too
In the health-care industry, the coronavirus pandemic led to big fortunes, fast. Now some of them are evaporating just as quickly. Take Seegene Inc, a maker of Covid-19 test kits, and Alteogen Inc, a biotech with subcutaneous-injection technology.
Their founders became billionaires as shares surged last year. Fast forward a few months to the vaccine rollout, and they have lost their title after both stocks sank more than 41%, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
It is a similar story for glove makers in Malaysia, which counted at least five industry billionaires by August as the worsening health crisis increased demand for protective gear.
Despite a brief rebound amid last month's frenzy in retail trading, their shares are down at least 40% since hitting highs, wiping more than $9 billion from their founders' net worth.