Lockdowns upend life as Bangladesh fights Covid surge

REUTERS | Sunday, 25 July 2021

Saiful Alam’s design and printing shop in Dhaka’s Purana Paltan was doing well enough to earn a living for his family, and also provide livelihoods for two of his employees.

But as the government imposes intermittent lockdowns to cope with the pandemic, it has become quite difficult for him to even afford food for his family, let alone pay for his home and office space and other essential expenditures.

Saiful has managed to survive by taking out loans, which have now totalled a hefty sum.

Using the loan money, Saiful paid his employees for two months, and then, with no other options left, cut them off with unpaid vacations.

Although the government lifted the lockdown in July for nine days for Eid-ul-Azha, he decided not to open the business out of frustration. He plans to reopen once things get back to normal.

“Even if we begin work after the end of a lockdown, it’s soon cut short by another lockdown. We can’t bring things under control like this,” Saiful said.

With infections and deaths hovering close to record numbers in the daily counts, the government reimposed the lockdown after Eid, with restrictions taking their harshest form yet.

Along with the police, the Rapid Action Battalion and the Border Guard Bangladesh, the army has been deployed to ensure that people follow the stay-at-home orders and other restrictions. The stringent measures will stay in effect until at least Aug 5.

The post-Eid lockdown is upending life once again. Hawa Bibi, a resident of Mirpur’s Pirerbag, is no less worried than Saiful.

The desperation of spending days without an income is compounded by worries about the future of her daughter, who has been unable to graduate due to the pandemic shutdown.

“Our daughter would have finished her studies if not for the lockdown. She might have had a job by now. Now it seems the lockdown will claim her professional career as well,” said Hawa, who runs a teashop with her husband in the neighbourhood.

She sometimes opens the store despite the lockdown to try and earn enough for food, but frets over reports of arrests and fines.

“If the police arrive, I’ll ask them to give us food first before closing the shop. There is no other way for us,” she said.

Bangladesh entered its first pandemic lockdown at the end of March last year after the first Covid-19 cases were detected in the country.

It continued for 66 days, leaving the poor entirely at the mercy of aid from others. Somehow many survived with help from the government, non-government organisations and individuals. The shutdown was a harsh measure for many people who lost jobs. Income for many others ran thin.

With Covid-19 cases declining at the start of 2021, things seemed like they were returning to normal. The authorities even considered reopening schools, colleges and other educational institutions

However, the country was hit by a second wave of the pandemic, with infections and fatalities climbing up towards the end of March with the dominance of the more infectious Alpha and Beta variants of the coronavirus, forcing the government to bring the harsh restrictions back in place from Apr 5.

That lockdown seemed to have some effect and as the situation began improving, the government began to gradually lift restrictions.

Then came the cruellest blow - the highly contagious Delta variant. The variant was first found in India and has, in a short period of time, become the dominant variant worldwide, spreading from Bangladesh’s border with India to other parts of the country.

In an attempt to rein in the pandemic, the government reimposed strict curbs on Jul 1, but that did not stop infections and deaths from shattering records. Now further lockdowns seem the only way to contain the deadly disease.

Sadia Binte Siddiqui, a housewife residing in Shantinagar, has accepted the fact that she should stay at home to reduce the risk of infection and spread the virus.

She and her husband have bought enough fish and meat to last more than a month. Her husband, who is a businessman, buys other groceries on his way home from work.

But being housebound for weeks and months is having a toll on her mental state.

“My condition is dreadful. My temper flares after staying at home for so long. I never went out during the previous lockdowns. We had a family reunion during the Eid, that’s it.”

She had plans of travelling to Kushtia to visit her in-laws during Eid, but cancelled them after taking the difficulty of making the return trip into account.

Because her family is not going hungry, Sadia has accepted the misery of the situation. After all, the pandemic is forcing many to go to bed with empty stomachs.

“Not everyone was able to celebrate Eid. You must’ve seen how people struggled to get back to Dhaka.”