Bangladesh troops to enforce lockdown as Covid death toll hits record high

Bangladesh is preparing to enter its most severe lockdown yet, with people allowed to leave their homes only in an emergency and soldiers set to patrol the streets, as a deadly resurgence of Covid-19 infections sweeps the country.

As the national Covid positivity rate exceeded 20% and Sunday saw the country record its highest single-day death toll of the pandemic so far, the government announced a set of tough measures in an effort to curb the spread, including the closure of public transport networks and confining the population to their homes for a week.

Cabinet secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam said troops would be deployed from Thursday to help enforce the lockdown. “The armed forces will be on patrol. If anyone ignores their orders, legal action will be available to them,” he told reporters late on Monday.

Islam added that “if needed, it [lockdown] will be extended”.

Most of the south Asian nation’s 168 million population will be confined to their homes by Thursday as part of the restrictions. Only essential services and some larger garment factories supplying international markets will be allowed to operate.

The halting of buses and trains last week has already left tens of thousands of migrant workers living in the capital, Dhaka, stranded and unable to get home. In scenes reminiscent of India’s lockdown last year, many migrant workers began walking home along the roads in the sweltering summer heat while others crammed into ferries, with no social distancing possible.

Officials have linked the surge in infections to the second Covid wave which swept neighbouring India in April, fuelled in part by the highly transmissible Delta variant. India and Bangladesh share a long and porous border and thousands of migrant workers have crossed over from India in recent weeks.

More than two-thirds of new virus cases in Bangladesh’s capital are now of the Delta variant, a recent study by the independent Dhaka-based International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research reported.

Authorities in Bangladesh fear a repeat of scenes in India, and more recently Nepal, where the deadly Covid-19 wave overwhelmed hospitals, led to oxygen shortages and brought the healthcare system to its knees.

Bangladesh reported more than 8,300 new infections on Monday and 119 deaths on Sunday. The country has reported a total of nearly 900,000 infections and just over 14,000 virus deaths, but experts say the actual toll is likely to be much higher due to underreporting.

Only about 3% of the population is vaccinated, due to a shortage of supplies in Bangladesh. The country had initially relied on vaccines from India but the rollout stalled when the Indian government banned all foreign exports of vaccines in order to meet domestic demand.

The World Health Organization’s Covax scheme, set up to distribute vaccines to poorer countries, is also facing supply shortages and so Bangladesh has recently turned to China and Russia for vaccines.

The implementation of the lockdown in Bangladesh has been staggered. Restrictions on activities and movement were first imposed across Bangladesh in mid-April as cases and deaths jumped to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic. Infections declined in May but started to rise again this month, sparking harsher restrictions.

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