Waiting for hundreds of fellow travelers to take a ferry to the Bangladeshi capital, unemployed construction worker Mohammed Nijam knew he was at risk of catching the coronavirus, but he believed it was even more so. risky to stay in Dhaka with another approach approaching.
“I have to pay the rent every month, even though I don’t have a job,” he said, adding that his landlord had bothered him with money even though he was struggling just to feed himself.
“I prefer to go to my village house and lead life as God allows me.”
Nijam is among the tens of millions of Bangladeshis who buy and travel this week during a controversial eight-day break in the country’s strict coronavirus closure that the government allows for the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Adha.
The suspension has been halted by health experts who warn it could aggravate a continuous rise driven by the highly contagious variant of Delta, which was first detected in neighboring India.
“There is already a shortage of beds, ICUs, while our healthcare providers are exhausted,” said Be-Nazir Ahmed, a public health expert and former head of the government’s Health Directorate.
“Therefore, if the situation worsens and more patients arrive in hospitals, it will be almost impossible to deal with the crisis.”
With the spread of the virus, almost everything in Bangladesh was ordered to close on July 1, from markets to mass transportation. Soldiers and border guards patrolled the streets and thousands were arrested and sent to prison for violating the closure.
However, even with the new restrictions, virus deaths continued to hover at about 200 each day and daily infections were still about 11,000, both believed to be low. On Sunday, 225 deaths and 11,758 infections were recorded.
Despite warnings from experts – and with just over four million of the country’s 160 million people completely vaccinated – the government announced that from 15 to 23 July all restrictions would be lifted and everything would be reopened so that people could celebrate. the festival, which is usually a benefit to the economy.
“But in all situations, people need to be alert, wear masks and strictly follow health instructions,” a government policy statement said.
Government officials have not responded to criticism of the movement.
An official from the Ministry of Public Administration, who issued the order stopping the blockade, referred the Associated Press news agency to the policy statement when asked for comments. Calls and emails to a health ministry spokesman were not returned.
A minor minister in the Ministry of Public Administration, Farhad Hossain, told local media on Saturday that the closure needed to be mitigated as many businesses revolve around the festival.
The result in the capital has been that crowds of people were trapped in shopping malls and markets to do their holiday shopping and others stretching through ports and bus stations as they try to make their way to their rural cities. .
During the last major Islamic festival in May, an estimated 10 million of Dhaka’s 20 million residents left to celebrate with their families.
A similar number could travel this week, mostly because many like Nijam, the construction worker, may be waiting for the next closure in their villages.
Among the huge crowd of people shopping at the new Dhaka market was Shah Alam, a dental technician.
“Since the government has relaxed the situation for a few days, we come to the markets to buy the necessary goods,” Alam said. “We are trying to follow health safety guidelines.”
Ahmed, the health expert, said he sees the main risks of suspending the closure when people in the city spread the virus to their villages and people who carry it while packing in the markets to buy, especially in the markets of cattle, where millions of people will buy animals sacrificed for Eid al-Adha.
“Hundreds of thousands of cattle markets may be organized across the country, from the remote village to the city, and cattle sellers and other people engaged in the business come mainly from rural areas and possibly carry viruses with them. “, he said. .
According to his estimates, 30 to 40 million people will gather to pray in mosques or open fields across the country to celebrate the festival on Wednesday.
“Eid congregations will be a widespread event,” he said.
He said the month following the festival will be a critical time for a country that has already recorded close to 1.1 million infections and nearly 18,000 deaths from the pandemic.
“We may not avoid a catastrophic situation,” he said.