THE COVID-19 outbreak has taken a turn for worse since early March with a current positivity rate of 20.49 per cent. About 7,000 cases have been detected a day for five consecutive days. In this context, it is worrying that instead of strengthening health safety measures, the government’s effort is weakening by the day. In early days of the outbreak, many public and private sector agencies installed about 200 hand-washing stations across Dhaka that rickshaw-pullers, street vendors and other day labourers could use to maintain hygiene. As access to water is scarce in low-income neighbourhoods, stations with free access to water and soap were of great help. These stations have now either disappeared or gone out of order. Dhaka south and north city authorities have installed the stations through offices of ward councillors, but took no steps to maintain them. City authorities, meanwhile, acknowledging challenges of maintaining the makeshift facilities in public places, also said that they have no plans to reinstall them. It is yet another example of the government’s poor response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Three main non-pharmaceutical preventive steps recommended by the World Health Organisation and followed globally are wearing masks, social distancing and washing hands. The government has not been successful in enforcing any of the measures. The partial lockdown that was ordered on April 5 has largely remained unenforced. A photograph that New Age published on Saturday shows people crowding a clothes store in Dhaka. Similar crowds and lack of regard for social distancing has been reported from kitchen markets. Social distancing and stay-at-home protocols are also difficult for the working class unless the orders are coupled with aid in food and cash. During the recent surge, the government so far has not announced any significant relief programme for the period of lockdown. To make people wear masks, as many experts suggest, the government campaign needs to be more robust and far-reaching as wearing masks for a longer period is still a socio-culturally unfamiliar expectations. The ‘no mask, no services’ campaign that the government has promoted to prevent contagion appears as rather punitive, as many health safety campaigners think that the campaign should be about raising collective awareness of the disease and about associated risks of individual failure in wearing masks on the community.
It is time that the government abandoned its disintegrated, episodic response to COVID-19 and developed a comprehensive response plan in view of health as well as socio-economic needs of people. In so doing, city authorities must immediately consider re-installing makeshift hand-washing stations for working class people with uninterrupted access to water and soap. Any initiatives it takes must come with a maintenance plan to ensure sustainability. The government must also reconsider its public campaign on preventive steps against COVID-19 to widen its social reach.
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