The COVID-19 scenario is worsening in Bangladesh. The number of deaths has jumped significantly with the detection of South African strain, which takes lives very quickly. Though we are going through a 7-day lockdown, which has been extended for another 7 days, it might not be enough with factories and many other organizations open. But to keep the economic performance, we have no way but to keep the offices, factories, banks, financial institutions open. The National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC) on COVID-19 has to take some strong decisions to tackle the transmission of this life-threatening virus and they also must make sure that, the government and all relevant authorities listen to their wise recommendations.
On 19 April 2020, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) formed a national technical committee to tackle the spread of COVID-19. At its 30th meeting on 9 April, 2021, the committee came up with the recommendation for a two-week full lockdown, particularly in the City Corporation and municipal areas. Then before the end of the two weeks, a fresh decision will be taken in consideration of the rate of COVID-19 transmission.
The government had declared a 7-day lockdown after the recommendation of NTAC on COVID-19 and later extended it for another 7 days. If it was government’s strategy to declare 7 days of lockdown initially and to extend it later in small phases to avoid heavy panic among the people, then we must appreciate it. But if it is because, the government has to extend lockdown as things are not going as they anticipated, then it becomes a concern.
The committee also recognized that, the health ministry is active in its efforts to increase the number of hospital beds, ICU facilities and oxygen supply and as the pressure of patients is mounting, the capacity of the hospitals must be increased fast. The NTAC on COVID-19 also referred that, the UK vaccine drive has yielded good results and in order to render the vaccine drive in Bangladesh a success too, stress must be placed on private sector import to ensure adequate vaccine supply.
The committee presented the facts and condition of COVID-19 nicely in their press release but failed to provide strategic advice to the government and relevant authorities, as we can understand. They ignored the economic facts, the social layers, the rural area medical facilities and many other factors related to Bangladesh. Though the government listened to them in putting lockdown but it was humiliatingly not totally as per the guidelines of NTAC on COVID-19 as the banks, securities market institutions and factories remained open in the City Corporation and municipal areas.
COVID-19 appeared in Bangladesh on March last year and the situation eased with the arrival of winter. Though many experts kept saying that the COVID-19 scenario will worsen at the end of winter, the NTAC on COVID-19 failed to recognize the threat and was completely silent enjoying the improved scenario. They did not warn the government when local government elections were scheduled, different anti-government parties were staging protests or Amar Ekushey Book Fair 2021 was getting arranged. They even did not even suggest the government to increase the COVID-19 health facilities keeping the facilities on hand intact. If they are so lame to anticipate the future risks, we cannot expect much workable recommendations from them.
The waves of COVID-19 do not come unnoticed. The recent South African strain or the previous UK strain had created havoc in UK and few other countries. The NTAC on COVID-19 did not follow that situation and could not suggest stopping flights with UK and other alarming countries. We failed to take precaution in 2020 and repeated the same mistake in 2021, questioning the common sense and utility of the NTAC on COVID-19. We cannot make the same mistakes in the upcoming years and need to adopt at least a 3-year plan right now.
The National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC) on COVID-19 has not yet recognized the deadly pandemic as a ‘disaster’. They should have formulated their strategies considering COVID-19 as a disaster in Bangladesh. The ferocious impact of this deadly virus on the health, social values and economy must be recognized to formulate strategies for at least three years. It will take around 3 years to vaccinate all citizens of Bangladesh. But as the impact of the vaccine will be only for maximum 1 year, we will always have the need of vaccination. But till now, we have not seen any strategy recognizing the continuous COVID-19 threats over the years.
We are now not in a position of the ‘usual’ suggestions from the NTAC on COVID-19 to tackle the pandemic situation in Bangladesh. We need to be innovative and must think out of the box. Unfortunately, this committee is mostly created with health experts, who are mostly senior and has performed under so many government duties in the past. The committee should include members from different fields – economists, journalists, intellectuals, businessmen, private job holders, social workers and many areas else. Moreover, along with the seniors, innovative young thinkers should be included in the committee. The mix will allow seeing the broader picture so that all aspects of Bangladesh can be considered before providing any workable solutions.
The committees like NTAC on COVID-19 of Bangladesh usually works independently in developed countries and their recommendations are treated seriously and made available to the public. But unfortunately this sort of committee cannot work ignoring the pressures of different groups including the government in our country. On different occasions, they wait for others’ reactions to formulate their advices. Their works end after providing some broad guidelines which even an ordinary man can provide. Follow-ups of their provided guidelines or preparation of contingency plans is not on their agenda.
It is amazing that, the National Technical Advisory Committee (NTAC) on COVID-19 has not recommended nationwide vivid campaign on COVID-19. They should realize that, lockdown cannot be a solution in a densely populated country like Bangladesh, where a large part of the population belongs to low and middle income groups. It is not possible for the government to feed such large population while the national production gets daunted for a long period. Though we have developed a lot under the farsighted leadership of Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, we have our limitations.
The NTAC on COVID-19 recommended inclusion of private sector to fasten vaccine drive but did not mention anything to reduce cost of COVID-19 related health services like; testing and ICU facility at the private hospitals. Private hospital became a lucrative business during the last few decades. During this critical or disaster period, they should provide COVID-19 related health services at the same cost as the government hospitals. This is serious time to perform some corporate social responsibility.
Diverse thinking and commitment towards controlling COVID-19 transmissions lacks in the works of our NTAC on COVID-19. They must realize that, nationwide campaign through different media, local political activities, local government employees, human rights workers, NGOs is a must now. We must educate our people on the COVID-19 health guidelines. We must educate them about how a family gets financially and socially destroyed with COVID-19. Our people must wear masks out of their home; they must go for low cost COVID-19 testing and must isolate themselves from everyone if suspected to be COVID-19 infected. We should focus on ensuring that awareness by all means as no lockdown will be able to keep our people at home with hungry faces around.
The NTAC on COVID-19 should be reformed so that they can come up with logical and innovative ideas to control COVID-19 transmission in our country. Their role and guidelines should be respected by all means by all authority and they must be independent of any influence. The committee members must be committed towards their objectives while having a mid to long-term focus in their strategies and suggestions. The government must extend selfless support to this committee as COVID-19 is expected to stay for a while. If NTAC on COVID-19 perform their role effectively and efficiently, we believe, we will have an edge in this fierce fight against COVID-19 in Bangladesh.
The writer is Chief Editor at Mohammadi News Agency (MNA), Editor at Kishore Bangla and
Chief Patron, Bangabandhu
Shishu Kishore Mela