As Bangladesh entered a strict COVID-19 lockdown Thursday, the army and police were ordered to patrol the streets, stopping people who fled their homes for purposes other than those allowed by authorities, such as emergencies or to buy essentials.
The government has said the South Asian nation of 168 million people is seeing an "alarming and dangerous" rise in cases, blamed largely on the highly infectious delta variant. Hospitals are struggling, particularly in areas bordering India where the strain was first detected. Some rural towns have recorded infection rates of 70%.
On the first day of the weeklong shutdown, Dhaka's normally bustling streets were deserted as soldiers in military fatigues carried out patrols and set up checkpoints. Dhaka's police chief told reporters that anyone leaving home without a good reason would be fined and may face arrest.
"If we need to file 5,000 cases and arrests a day, we will," Shafiqul Islam said.
The shutdown announcement last week sparked an exodus of migrant workers from Dhaka, with thousands cramming onto dangerously packed ferries in the delta nation.
"We are hopeful these tough measures will work. We have to contain the virus at any cost," health department spokesperson Robed Amin told Agence France-Presse (AFP). But Sagar, an 18-year-old street food seller in Dhaka, was angry.
"The government is imposing the lockdown only to kill the poor. There will be no work for us, no help from anyone," he told AFP.
All offices and shops were shut with only local food markets allowed to open for a few hours a day. Excluded are garment factories supplying Western giants such as H&M and Walmart. The sector forms a key pillar of the Bangladeshi economy.
Stock markets and commercial banks can also operate for a few hours a day. Touhidul Islam Chowdhury, who owns a small loan recovery firm, said the shutdown should be "enforced harshly". "A lot of people are dying and getting infected," he told AFP. "The army should have deployed much earlier."
Bangladesh has reported nearly 900,000 infections and just over 14,500 virus deaths, but experts say the actual toll could be much higher due to underreporting. More than two-thirds of new cases in Dhaka are of the delta variant, according to a recent study by the Dhaka-based International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research.
Unlike two previous two waves, the rural heartland where more than 60% of the population live has been hit, with reports saying local graveyards are overwhelmed. In Satkhira district in the southwest, authorities are probing media reports that seven coronavirus patients died after a hospital ran out of oxygen, local official Humayun Kabir told AFP. Health authorities have said meanwhile they will resume the country's inoculation drive from Thursday.
Television footage showed hundreds of people crowding a top hospital in Dhaka for the vaccine. The first phase ground to a halt after India stopped exporting AstraZeneca vaccines earlier this year to focus on its own needs. Bangladesh is expected to receive this weekend the first shipment of 2.5 million Moderna vaccines promised by the United States.
A Chinese Embassy official has said Beijing is also sending about 2 million Sinopharm vaccine doses that Dhaka bought, adding to the 1.1 million shots already donated by China.
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