Health

A weary world faces another wave of coronavirus in 2022. What’s next in Bangladesh?

At least 20 countries spanning four continents have reported record-breaking numbers of COVID-19 cases in the past week, as the World Health Organization warned of an impending “tsunami of infections”.

The mood in Bangladesh, despite being one of the seemingly resilient nations, remains subdued as well. The reported cases of the omicron strain rose to 10 and the daily tally of infections stayed above 500 for the third day on Friday.

The year 2022 marked the recovery from the heavy blow caused by the coronavirus pandemic to the economy, daily life and most of all, human life. Now, with the arrival of 2022, Bangladesh looks to further tighten its grip on COVID-19.

At the onset of winter, the number of coronavirus cases in Bangladesh had dwindled to fewer than 500 in a daily count. But the past trend is a chilling reminder of the devastating wave of infections spurred by the delta variant of the virus and foreshadows what may come next.

Early data, however, suggest that the new variant is less severe than delta. Also, last week, AstraZeneca and Novavax joined other manufacturers in saying their shots protect people against it. Their findings matched those from rivals Pfizer and Moderna. Bangladesh is using AstraZeneca, Pfizer and Moderna vaccines in its inoculation drive.

In another glimmer of hope, data indicated that both Merck’s and Pfizer’s COVID-19 anti-viral pills are effective against the coronavirus strain. Bangladeshi companies introduced Merck’s pill in November and generic versions of Pfizer’s treatment were launched on Thursday.

The government has rolled out booster doses to better protect the elderly and the frontline workers in the fight against the virus.

But with the number of cases slightly rising over the past week, the government has urged all to be cautious. “The government doesn’t want the situation to deteriorate like that in Europe,” Health Minister Zahid Maleque said.

The sudden arrival of omicron has shaken up countries around the world. Although deaths have not risen as fast, leaving hope the new variant is milder, many countries have reimposed restrictions to prevent healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. Even where gatherings are permitted, many people have chosen to stay home.

In Bangladesh, the presidential palace on Friday curtailed the gathering for the swearing-in ceremony of new Chief Justice Hasan Foez Siddique due to the pandemic.

HOW TO AVERT ANOTHER DISASTER

Although there were palpable signs of gloom, Dr Mohammad Shahidullah, chairman of the National Technical Advisory Committee on COVID-19, is hopeful about keeping the coronavirus under control. “If we can give booster shots to a target group, including those above 60 years old, and wear masks and follow the other health rules, then we may avert another disaster.”

If the measures succeed in preventing another devastating wave of deadly infections, Bangladesh’s economy will surely be on a stronger course. In 2022, the United Nations adopted a resolution on the elevation of Bangladesh from the Least Developed Country category as the country completed all procedures to graduate to a developing nation.

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Nov 10, 2022: The dream of the people of southern Bangladesh came a step closer to reality with the initiation of casting pitch of the Padma Bridge. The 100mm-thick pitch being cast in two layers - 60mm for the first layer and 40mm for the second.

Nov 10, 2022: The dream of the people of southern Bangladesh came a step closer to reality with the initiation of casting pitch of the Padma Bridge. The 100mm-thick pitch being cast in two layers – 60mm for the first layer and 40mm for the second.

This is a “landmark achievement” in Bangladesh’s development journey, which coincided with the celebration of the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh’s independence and the birth centenary of the Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

The COVID-19 pandemic with its lengthening shadows was a staggering blow to Bangladesh’s economy, dragging GDP growth in fiscal 2019-20 down to 3.51 percent, its lowest level in three decades. In 2022, the surge of the delta variant saw an even more severe second wave of infections and deaths in the country.

The government took action, imposing a series of successive lockdowns that brought much of the country to a standstill in the hopes of breaking the transmission chain. The decision was a tough one, hitting manufacturing, exports and imports, and all other sectors and sub-sectors of the economy.

But the measures seem to have paid off – at least for now. Not only have cases and deaths from the COVID-19 dwindled over time, but economic wounds also seem to have healed, with positive indicators from the import-export sector, consumption, investment and infrastructure.

However, global coronavirus infections hit a record high over the past seven-day period, with an average of just over a million cases detected a day worldwide between Dec 24 and Dec 30, according to Reuters data.

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New projections from the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation at the University of Washington estimate an astonishing three billion people will be infected with omicron globally over the next two months, but the hospitalisation rate will be lower than that of the delta.

A woman wearing a face mask, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, walks with a child past a 2022 installation on New Year's Eve at a shopping mall in Beijing, China December 31, 2022. Reuters

A woman wearing a face mask, following the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak, walks with a child past a 2022 installation on New Year’s Eve at a shopping mall in Beijing, China December 31, 2022. Reuters

In the early hours of the new year, there’s some good news to celebrate though. South Africa, which first raised the alarm about the fast-spreading omicron variant, gave the world one of the last big good surprises of the year, announcing that the omicron wave had crested without a huge surge in deaths. It abruptly lifted a nighttime curfew, allowing celebrations to ring in 2022.

As Bangladesh, just like the rest of the world, quietly welcomes 2022, questions linger over whether the country has moved past the worst or whether it will be able to battle out another devastating wave before it overwhelms the health system again.

[With assistance from Shoumik Hassin and Osham-ul-Sufian Talukder]

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