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25 June, 2020 06:06:19 PM / LAST MODIFIED: 25 June, 2020 08:17:42 PM

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Why ‘herd immunity’ can be a dangerous option

Still the number of tests is here very low and people are in the dark as to the infection rate, Ro, of this new strain in Bangladesh. Currently it is 2.88 in the US. Is there any plan about when and how the Bangladesh government wants to bring the Ro below 1 when the virus will gradually peter out? The answer is, no.
Kazi Mostaque Ahmed
Why ‘herd immunity’ can be a dangerous option

The government’s present lackadaisical approach to contain the novel coronavirus gives an impression that it has chosen developing herd immunity for the population. Since the number of deaths from the virus is much lower in Bangladesh compared to the US, countries of Europe and Latin America, it might have gone for this option which can be dangerous for Bangladesh. 
As of June 25, the government recorded 1621 known coronavirus deaths.

Then there are people who died with Covid-19 symptoms without any test. The actual number of these deaths is hard to come by, but according to the Centre for Genocide Studies (CGS) of Dhaka University, between March 8 and May 9, these deaths numbered to 929. After 45 days, the figure might be around the number of known Covid-19 deaths. 
True, these deaths are nowhere near the Covid-19 deaths in US, European and Latin Amercian countries where the viral infection virtually exploded. That is why many a time responsible people in authorities including the health minister showed a kind of smugness when they mentioned that situation in Bangladesh was far better than these countries.

Let me now explain why herd immunity can spell disaster for Bangladesh.
The government figures of infections are not even close to the reality since the number of tests is here very low. Still, people are in the dark as to the infection rate, Ro, of this new strain in Bangladesh. Currently it is 2.88 in the US. Is there any plan about when and how the Bangladesh government wants to bring the Ro below 1 when the virus will gradually peter out? The answer is, no.

The situation is just messy here. From the very beginning, the government has been choosy in testing the suspected patients: only samples of the patients with demonstrated Covid-19 symptoms were gathered and tested. But most countries of the world that conducted huge number of tests did so to know the actual scenario and stop the contagion. And percentage of deaths in these places, excepting perhaps in Germany, is much higher than Bangladesh.

Why deaths in Bangladesh --- or Pakistan and India in South Asia for that matter --- are lower than these countries? Some studies suggest that there is a co-relation between infectivity and virulence of the virus and temperature and humidity. There is still another view that the virus that reached Bangladesh underwent mutations and in the process became weak. But there is no clear proof for this. Still, there is a view that as most people here took pox vaccine, this might be giving immunity to the new disease. However, there has been no scientific evidence.

When the virus hit China, Italy, Iran, Spain, Britain, Germany and France, all these countries had an overall temperature below 20 degree Celsius or even much lower than that. And these countries had to launch a hard fight against the respiratory disease as the virus spread very quickly in the ‘favourable low’ temperature.

At the time when some of these countries almost reached the peak of contagion, Bangladesh just recorded its first case on March 8, much later after Pakistan (Feb 26) and India (Jan 30) in South Asia. In that sense Bangladesh got a lot of time for preparation to control a possible outbreak. Bangladesh, India and Pakistan passed the winter in the month of March and Bangladesh started recording the highest temperature above 30 degree Celsius from this month.

All these three countries are densely populated with Bangladesh being the densest in the world. Yet because of higher summer temperature and humidity in the air, cases of infection in these countries might be rather low than the countries in Europe or US. But because of half-hearted approach to virus containment, though five or four months on, these South Asian nations have failed to reach the peak of infection.

Pakistan and India’s efforts to suppress the contagion does not come here, but Bangladesh could have stopped spread of infection by sealing the air, land and sea ports right in the beginning. Later, lack of seriousness to quarantine travelers at the entry points followed by the slipshod enforcement of the so-called ‘lockdown’ slowed infection somewhat, but did not suppress the virus entirely. On the contrary, four months into the pandemic, infections are rising in Bangladesh with more deaths everyday because now even this ‘lockdown’ is not in force. Everything now is close to normal with public hospitals struggling to treat ever increasing number of Covid-19 patients.

The government here just wasted all these months because of missteps. It was really surprising that it declared a general holiday instead of a lockdown, that also in response to the demand of some employees in the government like the university students who asked for closure of their institutions. 

Now at this point of time, if the government has in mind developing herd immunity in population, infection will very probably continue to the months of winter. No one knows for sure if in low temperature, the virulence of coronavirus will not be like US, countries of Europe and Latin America. A similar explosion of the virus in Bangladesh, the densest place in the world, can cause a huge number of deaths at that time. That is why Bangladesh government must zero or limit the case of infection by the month of September/October so that it does not become a major problem in winter. But there is no explicit plan for this.

A stitch by sealing the entry points and putting in place rigorous institutional quarantine in the beginning could have saved the entire population from the risk of infection. Later the government had to grapple with the contagion with ‘uncoordinated’ nine stitches. Now it has assumed an attitude of depending upon chance or people’s natural resistance. God forbids, if the pathogen really gets back its power of infectivity and virulence in winter, then patches after patches will not be able to save people from the virus in the one hand and from the concomitant pandemic problems such as hunger and poverty or even famine on the other hand. 

The writer is Assistant Editor of The Independent and can be contacted at: kazi.mostaque@theindependentbd.com

 

 

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Editor : M. Shamsur Rahman
Published by the Editor on behalf of Independent Publications Limited at Media Printers, 446/H, Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1215.
Editorial, News & Commercial Offices : Beximco Media Complex, 149-150 Tejgaon I/A, Dhaka-1208, Bangladesh. GPO Box No. 934, Dhaka-1000.

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