The rate of coronavirus infection in the country can be controlled if the new zone-based lockdown is strictly maintained. To ensure this, the government needs to act now and act fast
At the beginning of the outbreak, on a day to day basis, Covid-19 cases grew in the country at a rate as high as 30 percent.
As the shutdown continued, this rate fell to six percent on 26 April, 2020, the day factories were reopened.
Since the shutdown was eased, the growth rate of new Covid-19 cases remained in the range of 5-6 percent and did not fall any further.
One aspect very closely related to the coronavirus infection is the "doubling time" of the number of cases.
"Doubling time" is the number of days it takes for the total number of coronavirus cases in a country to double, if the growth rate at which the infection is spreading remains the same.
Since the shutdown was announced and till it was eased, this "doubling time" steadily increased in Bangladesh.
Initially, the number of cases was doubling every two to four days; by the end of April, it increased to 11 days.
However, ever since the shutdown was eased, the doubling time in the country did not improve much and almost remained stagnant around 10-13 days.
For instance, from 6 May, 2020, it took around 10 days to double the total number of infected to 20,995; it took another 12 days to cross the 40,000 mark.
On 1 June, 2020, the total number of coronavirus cases in the country was 49,534. If the current pace of infection remains unabated, by 14 June, we might have as many as 100,000 cases.
What is more frightening is that due to this unplanned removal of the shutdown, we might see an increase in the growth rate of infection. It would mean even fewer number of days for coronavirus cases in Bangladesh to double.
The second point advocated was to achieve herd immunity, and therefore, have no need to further extend the shutdown.
There is no denying that the only alternative to surviving this pandemic is by attaining herd immunity.
However, there are two ways to accomplish it. Firstly, through universal vaccination and secondly, through exposure to the virus itself and recover from the infection.
The coronavirus vaccine is still developing and the world might get hold of it within a year.
With a strong pharmaceutical industry, it might not be difficult for Bangladesh to mass produce it at the earliest.
As mentioned earlier, the second way of obtaining herd immunity is through coronavirus contagion.
A critical level of population is required to be immune to the virus (also called Herd Immunity Threshold or HIT) so that the disease may no longer persist.
Literature shows that, depending on the number of effective reproduction of coronavirus, this threshold could vary between 30-75 percent of the total population.
Even if 30 per cent of the population is infected in order to obtain herd immunity, it would still mean a total of 50 million cases.
The result of an unabated infection in Bangladesh could be devastating. Given that there is a severe supply-side shortage in the country, it would only put thousands of lives at risk.
Bangladesh's total healthcare expenditure (as percentage of the GDP) is the lowest in the world, while the out of pocket expenditure for healthcare is one of the highest.
Lower government expenditure in the healthcare sector has resulted in an extreme under supply of healthcare professionals and availability of healthcare services.
According to Health Bulletin 2018, the total number of hospital beds available in the country is 143,394. For every 10,000 population, there are only seven registered physicians and 0.32 medical technologists.
This gloomy picture tells us why now we need to act fast more than ever. The first few weeks of shutdown showed that, although it was not very successful, it did help to reduce the rate of infection.
If the country can now impose a strict lockdown, the result could surely be very different. This was not the right time to withdraw the shutdown.
Can Bangladesh afford several weeks of strict lockdown?
The short answer to this question is, yes it can. The existing foreign reserve is sufficient for several months of import payments.
Bangladesh has enough food at stock; the country has successfully managed the boro-harvesting period – the single most important crop in the country in terms of volume.
The government has kept a low budget deficit over the years, which gives it enough fiscal space that many other countries do not have right now.
In comparison to other nations, the debt to GDP ratio of Bangladesh is significantly lower. All these give Bangladesh an opportunity to act fast at this moment.
During the new zone-based lockdown, the government can classify areas with colour codes – green, yellow and red. Even if economic activities are allowed in green zones, health protocols should be strictly maintained.
Healthcare facilities across the country should be rapidly upgraded while the lockdown continues. Poorer families should receive direct cash transfers from the government.
Even if the government provides a monthly stipend of Tk3,000 to two crore families (50 percent of the population) for three months, this would mean less than one percent of the country's total GDP.
To save hundreds of thousands of lives, the government can at least do this much. It can buy some time for people of the country to breathe for a bit longer.
Mahtab Uddin, is a lecturer of Economics at University of Dhaka, and a research fellow at SANEM