As long as large portions of people remain unvaccinated, Covid will keep spreading and mutating. Urgent measures must be put in place to ensure smooth and uninterrupted supply of oxygen in hospitals while also increasing their seat capacities. A fresh review of the hospitals by DGHS should help determine their readiness. More importantly, all the restrictions and health directives being imposed by the authorities must be implemented properly, reports Press Xpress
The Omicron variant of coronavirus has been fuelling a rapid surge of COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh as elsewhere across the globe that threatens to overwhelm health systems still reeling from a deadly wave of the Delta variant only last year. With speculation rife, perhaps the most frequent question that surfaces in people’s minds is whether the country is ready enough to check the latest Omicron surge.
On January 21, the government’s Cabinet Division in a gazette notification once again ordered closure of all educational institutions across the country for two weeks – just 132 days into their partial reopening – in the wake of a rapid surge in new Covid-19 cases. These educational institutions reopened across the country on a limited scale only on September 12 last year after 542 days of closure for the same reason.
Mask wearing has been made a must in all public places including mosques, shopping malls, bus stands, launch terminals, and rail stations, while the government and private company employees must show vaccine certificates at work. Prohibiting any kind of gathering of over 100 people to curb the spread of the deadly virus, the latest 5-point directive read those attending such event have to carry vaccine certificates as well as a RT-PCR negative certificate from a test done within 24 hours of the event. All local and law enforcement authorities have been directed to ensure all these restrictions.
Last few weeks have seen Bangladesh reporting alarming increase in COVID-19 infections, with the neighbouring India reporting a 2,013 per cent rise in COVID-19 cases over the past month. The new wave is causing further misery to millions of people in the region, already living in poverty, exacerbated by COVID-19 over the past two years.
According to some expert predictions, after a big drop in infections and deaths from Covid-19, the trend is seen as creeping up and could soar with Omicron’s full-fledged arrival in this country. Even though in recent past, cases of corona had blissfully fallen to a few deaths and much reduced number of new infections, this scene is now seem to bleak as the number of deaths ranging from nil to one or two are seen rising to four to eight or even twelve with the number of new cases also surging conspicuously.
Experts also fear that deaths and infections could soar to a peak in the coming summer season, presently non-corona strains of viruses from colds are helping to control or hide corona-induced symptoms. With the rise of temperature and disappearance of non-corona strains of other cold viruses, cases of corona-induced strains might very likely rise even to explosive levels in the summer months – especially the Omicron mutant form of the virus.
Earlier on January 10, the government issued an 11-point directive, including mandatory COVID passes and restrictions on events an d transport. The Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) declared capital Dhaka and southeastern tourism district Rangamati ‘red zones’ as the infection rate in these areas was reported to be between 10 per cent and 19 per cent. In recent weeks, infections soared with over 230 per cent rise week on week, as people appear to be oblivious to the restrictions. The government said 69 per cent of the new cases in Dhaka are of the highly contagious omicron variant.
As the country, just like the rest of the world, quietly welcomes 2022, questions linger over whether Bangladesh has moved past the worst and whether it’ll be able to battle out another devastating wave before it overwhelms the health system again. Amid multi-prong schemes and initiatives to curb the spread of novel coronavirus, Bangladesh earlier launched an app titled Corona Tracer BD with high hopes, promises and much fanfare. But after launching on 4th June 2020, the app turned out to be one of the major disappointments as it failed to reliably track and notify its users of possible infections.
Evidently, Tk 91 lakh taxpayers’ money was wasted in the name of this initiative, with experts pointing out that the app failed to benefit its users due to poor planning and technical limitations. Moreover, the government did not take any initiative to modify the app or make the app mandatory for the users.
Of late, experts and the conscious section of the society have demanded an app that will give a red signal if the user is infected, and a green signal if not infected, a yellow signal if he has given samples for testing and a report is pending. This will alert people who are travelling on public transport, roads and markets or social events, as well as the law enforcement agencies and health workers will be able to take action.
As for reference abroad, the Qatari government has already made using such an app mandatory for citizens. The government has instructed to keep these apps running before any citizen leaves their house. Failure to do so could result in a 55,000 US dollar fine or up to three years in prison. This is how it has become possible to know if the user is infected or was in contact with any infected person.
Experts believe that urgent measures must be put in place to ensure smooth and uninterrupted supply of oxygen, a key requirement for Covid patients, in hospitals across the country as well as increasing their seat capacities. A fresh review of the hospitals by the DGHS should help determine their readiness. Also, according to the DGHS, only 31 per cent of the people have been fully vaccinated so far. The vaccination drive must be ramped up. More importantly, all the restrictions and health directives being imposed by the authorities must be implemented properly, or they may prove to be ineffective against the virus.
Bangladesh, home to about 180 million people, confirmed its first Omicron cases in the second week of last month when two women cricketers returned from a series in Zimbabwe. However, to curb the surge, the January 10 government restrictions mandate people to wear protective face masks at shops, shopping malls, markets, hotels, restaurants and other public places. All social, political and religious public gatherings at open spaces have been banned until further notice. Trains, buses and launches have been instructed to carry passengers at half capacity. The rules also say that students above 12 years of age will not be allowed to attend in-person classes without showing a vaccine certificate.
To enforce the rules, the government has set up mobile courts across Dhaka, though the rules are not being strictly followed. During the second wave of the pandemic in July and August last year, Bangladesh witnessed more than 200 deaths a day for about a month. Many died due to a shortage of medical oxygen.
The omicron variant of the coronavirus has an already stressed world more worried. The variant, first discovered in Botswana in southern Africa, is believed to be spreading faster than the Delta variant – the world-dominant strain. According to preliminary studies conducted on the new variant, it makes vaccines 40 per cent less effective. This is due to 32 mutations in the spike protein. According to health experts based in the UK, two of these mutations – R203K and G204R – help the virus replicate faster. Three of these mutations – H655Y, N679K and P681H – help it to sneak into the body’s cells more easily, they said. The presence of last two mutations together, a rare occurrence, also indicate omicron is more resistant to vaccines.
Coronavirus loses 90 per cent of its ability to infect people within 20 minutes of becoming airborne – with most of the loss occurring within the first five minutes, according to the world’s first simulations of how the virus survives in exhaled air.
The findings re-emphasise the importance of short-range Covid transmission, with physical distancing and mask-wearing likely to be the most effective means of preventing infection. Ventilation, though still worthwhile, is likely to have a lesser impact.
Recently, Spain tossed the idea when Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez said it’s time to think of new ways to live with Covid in the long run, the way the world does with the flu. Other countries jumped in and said they may be heading for a new chapter of the disease.
However, health experts preach caution, saying there is too much uncertainty about how the virus will develop, how much immunity the society has built up and potential harm if people stop being careful.
It is inevitable that governments will ultimately have to view Covid as one of many public health challenges that can be addressed – rather than one that requires the urgency and focus that has been devoted since the beginning of 2020.
Researchers are looking into any potential impact the Omicron variant has on the effectiveness of COVID-19 vaccines. Information is still limited, but there may be a small reduction in the effectiveness of vaccines against severe illness and death, and a decline in preventing mild disease and infection. However, WHO reports that so far it looks like the currently available vaccines offer significant protection against severe disease and death.
Omicron is highly contagious, but its influence on hospitalizations and deaths is still unconfirmed by researchers. As long as large portions of people remain unvaccinated, Covid will keep spreading and mutating. That means the pandemic’s future timeline is highly uncertain, even as experts broadly agree that Covid will eventually become an endemic and potentially seasonal disease.
The message is simple and clear. While there is no straight forward cure for the coronavirus disease, it is the basic protocol that is still the most effective. As we look around, we often see it’s becoming an enigma that many people are not following the same protocols. Wearing facemasks, washing hands frequently and not crowding is still the most effective way. Ironically, these are what we are not doing even though many fear a full-blown outbreak in the making.