July 6, 2022
DHAKA – Bangladesh is seeing another rise of Covid-19 cases. In the first five days of July alone, 32 Covid-infected patients died, according to the health directorate. As of 6pm July 5, our total caseload stands at 1,982,972 since the pandemic broke out in the country on March 8, 2020.
This scenario once again reminds us of the fact that we are still in the midst of a pandemic, although at times – especially when Covid is less active – we seem to lose sight of it and take on a more complacent approach in our fight against the pandemic.
For some time now, Europe, the Americas, Eastern Mediterranean and Southeast Asia have been witnessing a rise in Covid, with Omicron subvariants BA.4 and BA.5 accounting for many of those cases. These two subvariants are highly contagious, classified as variants of concern by the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), and can easily navigate the immunity provided by previous infections and cause breakthrough infections.
Traces of BA.4 and BA.5 have also been found in Bangladesh. The Jashore University of Science and Technology was the first to report detection of the subvariants in June. And with the rising number of cases, the footprint of these subvariants has increased.
Under such circumstances, our immediate way forward is strictly reinforcing and adhering to safety guidelines. But even in this, there seems to be a reluctance on the government’s part. In view of the deteriorating situation, the National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC) for Covid management in Bangladesh, during a meeting on June 14, recommended implementing six restrictions to curb the spread of the infection. However, it was not until June 28 – two weeks after the NTAC meeting – that the Cabinet Division issued a notification on the new restrictions. Given the urgency, why did it take two weeks for the authorities to issue the notification?
Similarly, people too seem reluctant to stay safe. They are hardly seen wearing masks out in public: on the roads, in public transport, inside shops, in the crammed lifts.
But then, masks are a luxury for some – especially for rickshaw-pullers, van-pullers, hawkers and day labourers, for whom meeting the daily basic needs is a challenge at present. And in the reality of inflation, for most – even in the middle class – masks would likely be at the bottom of the monthly grocery list. One needs to note here that masks are no longer VAT-exempted, meaning their prices have increased. Why the authorities made such a decision is another question which with no logic one can answer.
What is even more unfortunate is the irresponsible behaviour of the people and institutions we consider responsible. Big, crowded events such as Eid fairs, weddings, parties and official programmes are going on in full swing. Now, with Eid-ul-Azha coming up, Covid cases are expected to increase, because as usual, public transports will be operating in overcapacity; buses, launches, trains and trawlers will be overcrowded with homeward-bound people, turning them into the ideal hotbeds for Covid breeding.
In view of this, our healthcare professionals need to brace themselves for a new onslaught of Covid cases. Although the government has done a commendable job of vaccinating more than 70.4 percent of the population with two full doses of the coronavirus vaccine, it won’t be enough to stop the spread of the subvariants. A part of the solution could be in the bivalent vaccine, which is currently in development. Bivalent vaccine works by “stimulating an immune response against two different antigens, such as two different viruses or other microorganisms,” according to the National Cancer Institute in the US.
The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has asked Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna to develop bivalent vaccines that could target both the original coronavirus strain, as well as the BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants, according to the FDA’s top vaccine regulator, Dr Peter Marks. The FDA is planning this for the autumn boosters. However, for countries like Bangladesh, the challenge would be to get the bivalent vaccines.
A two-pronged approach could cushion us from the shocks of the fourth wave of the pandemic. While complete lockdown is not a feasible solution, especially in view of the economic pressures we are already facing, we cannot also allow the situation to reach a point where the only solution is a hard lockdown. Therefore, at this point, what we need to focus on are strict implementation of social distancing and health safety protocols. Since the new variants are still active in small clusters, vigilant monitoring of cases, proactive contact tracing, immediate testing, and isolation where required would be key in preventing the new variants from spreading. At the same time, law enforcement officials need to strictly enforce social distancing guidelines. At the same time, VAT on masks should be withdrawn immediately. Rather, masks should be subsidised so that a greater number of our population can afford them.
Vaccination is the other component of this two-pronged solution. The government needs to ramp up efforts further to vaccinate the population with booster shots, and start immediate inoculation of children aged 5-12. Moreover, it should start working right away to secure the doses of bivalent vaccines, especially for the frontline workers and the elderly in order to provide them with the immunity required.
Comprehensive, combined and concerted efforts are our only weapons to overcome the fourth wave. With the holiday weekend coming up and then winter in a few months, vigilance, precaution and prevention should be our agenda to tackle the fourth wave of Covid infections.