As the demand for clamping a 'hard' lockdown from health experts and even business leaders is becoming louder, the government, apparently, is about to initiate a soft approach to contain the deadly novel coronavirus.
The government, according to media reports, is contemplating dividing the country, which is now regarded as a hotspot, into colour-coded areas, depending on the intensity of Covid-19 infection. The colour-coded approach will be implemented in Dhaka first on a pilot basis.
According to zoning guidelines that are yet to be made public, red zones would indicate 'hotspots', orange zones will represent some infections, while green would cover areas with no or very little infection.
It is not clear how zones will be selected. In other countries where zoning mechanism was put in place to tackle widespread infection, it was done, primarily, targeting provinces or states and cities and towns.
The government, reportedly, is not declaring Dhaka city as the red zone. Rather, it has decided to divide Dhaka into zones, depending on the rate of infection.
The wards of two city corporations will be split into red, yellow and green zones. If the rate of infection among 100,000 people in a ward is 40 or more, it will be regarded as a red zone and a ward with infection less than that will be coloured as a yellow zone. Any ward having no infection or infection at the rate of 3 or below will carry the green zone tag.
Strict lockdown will be 'enforced' in red zones and the residents of those areas will not be allowed to leave or outsiders to enter that zone. People living in yellow zones will experience a bit relaxed restrictions. Authorities will allow limited movement in such zones. There will be no restriction on the people's movement in green zones.
Since the residents of red zones will not be allowed to move freely, the government will have to meet all their needs in relation to food, medicine etc. If colour-zoning is introduced, the government will have to pay special attention to it. Undoubtedly, this will be a pretty difficult job.
However, there exists strong specticism about the government's move to introduce area-based zoning in Dhaka or other cities and towns. Many do have a feeling that it would be really difficult to keep people confined to their homes in the so-called red zones.
The truth is that the authorities here have not made serious effort in the past two months or more to enforce strict lockdown as has been witnessed in other countries. In many European and Asian countries, lockdown, in appearance, resembled curfew. None was allowed on the streets without special pass or medical emergency.
The government instead of clamping lockdown or shutdown declared public holiday in the last week of March. The holiday was extended in phases until May 30 last. During this period, movement of public transports and most economic activities remained suspended. However, movement of people, from the beginning, has been more or less unchecked. Besides, a few decisions involving operation of mills and factories during the 'holiday' period had given rise to confusions. Those also brought to the fore the issue of lack of coordination in the official decision-making process.
There is no denying that a sizeable section of people have been ignoring the need for adhering to health safety guidelines such as social distancing , wearing of masks properly and hand-sanitization. This is partly because of ignorance and lack of education. What has been observed in this part of the world over the years is that application of a bit of coercion is necessary to make people follow the rules.
Thus, taking into account the propensity among a large section of people to flout rules, it would be proper on the part of the government to enforce tough or hard lockdown for a couple of weeks or more in cities and town having large number of virus infection.
It is not just health experts, others have been urging the government to enforce hard lockdown immediately. Businesses people who earlier had vented their resentment over suspension of economic activities for a long period also demand a tough lockdown. They do know the way things are going now would not only heighten the rates of infection and fatality but also make the situation even more difficult in the coming days.
Business leaders are also confident that the economy that has been growing at a rate between 7.0 and 8.0 per cent in recent years has the capacity to withstand some amount of negative effect of the pandemic and feed the poor and vulnerable groups of people for a couple of weeks or more.
It is now apparent that any economic revival under the prevailing circumstances is not possible. This is evident from a very low turnover of business establishments that have restarted operation since May 31 last. The country's stock market is yet another indicator. The latest turnover at the Dhaka Stock Exchange (DSE) was 13-year low. The slide in stock prices is being artificially checked using the 'floor price' mechanism.
The way the Covid-19-related developments in the health sector and beyond have been handled so far does not make one highly confident about the success of the government's move to divide the cities and towns into zones.
Neighbouring India had tried zoning but in a different way. It divided the states into red, yellow and green zones on the basis of infection rate and introduced restrictions, including tough lockdown. The country got good results. But the situation is changing now as the government has started opening up the economy. Infection has recorded a phenomenal rise during the last few days. India now has the sixth highest number of Covid-19 cases in the world.
Since Dhaka is the number one hotspot, in terms of both infection and fatality rates, the government might consider declaring it as a red zone and clamping a stringent lockdown all over. The port city of Chittagong could be yet another strong candidate for such a measure.