The Hajj Agencies Association of Bangladesh (HAAB) has demanded the government provide interest-free working capital of Tk 1,500 crore to cover their losses due to the outbreak of coronavirus pandemic.
HAAB President M Shahadat Hossain Taslim said they asked the government to give them a special incentive as the virus outbreak affected the Umrah, travel and tourism sectors badly.
The incentive proposal includes providing cash to Hajj and Umrah agencies to cover the losses that they have already faced; arrange Tk 1,500 crore interest-free working capital loan for them, give cash incentive to travel and tour operators, and arrange working capital loan for travel agents and tour operators under package-1 announced by the Prime Minister.
He said the sector plays an important role where around 1.2 lakh people are involved directly and indirectly. They sought the incentive to save people and their families. Meanwhile, they have sent a mail to the finance minister regarding the incentive.
Taslim said the current number of HAAB members is 1,238 while that of its officers and employees, including the owners of Hajj agencies, is around 20,000. It takes Tk 50 crore to provide their monthly salary, office rent, and other expenses.
Besides, around one lakh people are involved in the sector indirectly in Bangladesh and Saudi Arabia. The agencies serve the country’s 96 percent Hajj pilgrims and 100 percent Umrah performers.
The coronavirus outbreak has affected the sector badly. They suffered a loss of Tk 100 crore since the Saudi Arabia suspended the Umrah activities on February 26. They have bought the full package of visas, air tickets and hotel booking of 10,000 pilgrims for Umrah.
They also paid Tk 25 crore for the booking of 5,000 advance air tickets in the upcoming Ramadan. It also cost Tk 50 crore for a monthly salary and office expenses. So, the total net loss is Tk 175 crore.
Taslim said around one lakh pilgrims were taking preparations for Umrah in the next Ramadan where the transactions will be about Tk 1,000 crore. They have taken preparations privately to send 1.20 lakh Hajj pilgrims in 2020. They will have to face Tk 4,800 crore if they fail and the amount is not manageable.
Besides, the agencies will have to pay monthly salaries and office rent of Tk 50 crore per head by June 30. So, the transaction and net loss will be Tk 6, 125 crore.
Many of the agencies will lose their capability of paying monthly salary and office rent due to the coronavirus fallout. As a result, 10,000 direct employees and 50,000 indirect employees in the country and Saudi Arabia can lose their jobs, he said.
All HAAB members are involved with the business of travel agents, tour operators and other sectors of the truism industry.
Many of them are involved with the business of aviation, inbound and outbound tourism, domestic tourism, hotel and resort, and tourist transportation. All of these sectors are badly affected by the coronavirus outbreak.
Though the UN has warned that coronavirus protective measures could jeopardise food security around the world, experts said Bangladesh is unlikely to face such a problem if the government can ensure people’s access to food as it has enough food stock.
They also said the government should not be complacent with its huge food stock as it has a big challenge to ensure its availability at the doorsteps of the affected people through various social safety net programmes and food ratioing system, and keep the prices of the essentials affordable through proper market intervention in a bid to ensure food security.
According to the experts, the government’s measures to provide people with food aid are not sufficient when millions involved in the informal sector have become temporarily unemployed with the gradual loss of their buying capacity due to the shutdown of economic activities.
They also warned that food security will not be ensured even after having adequate volume of food grains as the system may fail to ensure its availability at every nook and corner always within the buying capacity of all.
Contacted, Sarwar Mahmud, the Directorate General (DG) of Food, said the country is unlikely to face any food crisis even if the coronavirus situation prevails for a long timed due to adequate stock of food grains, including rice, wheat, potato and other essential commodities.
“We’re not worried about food security since Bangladesh is not a food-deficit country. We got a bountiful Aman production while we’re expecting an impressive production of Boro paddy as well,” he added.
The DG said they have around 14 lakh metric tonnes of rice and 3 lakh metric tonnes of wheat while rice traders, millers, wholesalers and farmers have more food grains stock than the government has. “Many people also hoarded food out of their fear of food crisis. So, our food grains stock is adequate to meet the country’s demand for more than a year.”
Besides, he said Boro harvest will begin just after a month which will boost the food grain stock further.
Agriculture Secretary Md Nasiruzzaman said coronavirus has no impact on Bangladesh’s agriculture sector and they do not think the country’s food security will be at stake if the corona situation prolongs.
“We’ve got a bumper production of Aman and Aush crop. We’ll also have had a good production of Boro. We produced almost all crops and vegetables this season much more than what we did last year. So, we won’t face any food crisis under any situation,” he said.
Nasir said farmers produced around 23 lakh metric tonnes of onion last year while they expect it to be more than 25 lakh metric tonnes this year. “We got over one crore metric tonnes of potato last year while the farmers produced around 1. 09 crore metric tonnes of the crop this year against the local demand for 70,000 metric tonnes.”
Besides, he said, farmers also this year produced over 5,000 metric tonnes of vegetables more than what they did last year. “Agricultural activities remain unaffected amid the coronavirus shutdown as farmers usually work maintaining social distancing. Most of our crops, except Boro paddy, jute and maize, have already been produced. So, there’s no reason to be worried about any food crisis.”
Commerce Minister Tipu Munshi at a recent press confrere said the government has enough stock of food grains and daily household items.
“There’s no scope for shortage of food since the government has stockpiled about 40 percent more goods this year than it had last year," he said.
The minister said 2.6 lakh tonnes of pulses were imported in 2018-19 financial year, while 2.1 lakh tonnes pulses have already been imported over the last seven months.
He said they have also imported enough edible oil and onion to meet the local demand of the items.
Talking to UNB, former caretaker government finance adviser Dr AB Mirza Azizul Islam said the country may not face any food crisis as the stock looks enough to deal with the coronavirus situation. “But the main worries are whether people will have the access to food or the food will be available for people at affordable prices.”
He said people’s buying capacity is declining with the suspension of most economic activities to prevent the virus. “Besides, many people have lost their sources of earning and become temporarily jobless. So, it’s the main challenge to ensure food for them by widening the social safety net programmes.”
The noted economists said the government must strengthen its food aid support mainly for the day-labourers and those involved in informal sector alongside the BGF and OMS programmes for the poor to ensure food safety of all citizens.
He said the government announced a stimulus package of Tk 5,000 crore for the RMG sector, but it did not spell out any such package for those engaged in informal sector, the source of 85 percent of total employment in the country.
Mirza Aziz said the rich should come forward and corporate houses should use their CSR funds to stand by the affected people alongside the government to ensure food security.
Prof Mustafizur Rahman, Distinguished Fellow at the Centre for Policy Dialogue (CPD), said Bangladesh is in a better position than may other coronavirus-hit countries in terms of food production and food stock. “But food security means not only having adequate food grains. The proper distribution of food, availability of food and people’s purchasing capacity involves the food security notion.”
He said nearly 1 core day-labourers have lost their jobs while the overwhelming majority of 2.70 crore people in the informal sector has become temporarily unemployed and they are gradually losing their purchasing capacity. “The government should look into this matter so that these huge number of people can have food.”
Besides, Mustafiz said, many people returned to their village home but they have no income now. “So, the government must introduce food rationing system alongside strengthening other programmes under social safety net. Food security will be ensured when people will have access to food.”
He said the government also must remain alert and strengthen market monitoring so that unscrupulous businessmen cannot create artificial food crisis taking advantage of the situation.
Nurses in Bangladesh are worried of being traumatised in some cases as most hospitals are not in a position to provide them with the personal protective equipment (PPE) they require to look after patients of a highly contagious disease such as COVID-19.
The World Health Organization defines PPE as consisting of “garments placed to protect the healthcare workers or any other persons from getting infected. These usually consist of standard precautions: gloves, mask, gown. If it is blood or airborne high infection will include: Face protection, goggles and mask or faceshield, gloves, gown or coverall, head cover, rubber boots.”
Coronavirus’ exact transmission dynamics are not fully understood yet. Mainly, it is believed to be transmitted through droplets, but some studies have indicated it may even transmit through airborne particles. What is beyond doubt is that it is highly contagious.
Talking to many nurses at different hospitals, UNB found them extremely disturbed at the prospect of having to work with the patients in close proximity. It is not just a matter of their own safety. They may pick up the virus and pass it on to other patients just as easily, or their family members, or anyone else.
Their concerns have been heightened by the number of people testing positive for COVID-19 witnessing a dramatic rise in the last few days, which means soon they will have to be looking after them.
Asma Akhter, a senior staff nurse at a hospital, shared her grief on social media in a post that went viral, after which UNB contacted her.
She said they are left hopeless as no-one is thinking about their safety seriously during this corona pandemic.
The nurse mentioned an overview of nurses before sharing her experience.
Bangladesh has a total of 41, 600 registered nurses, which works out to a nurse and population ratio of 1:3839. But WHO sets a standard that there should be two nurses for every 1000 people. Bangladesh needs 278,400 (2.78 lakh) nurses more to reach that standard."
She said infection of a nurse with the virus will hamper smooth health services for the affected patients. “Don't send us unarmed into the battle,” she pleaded.
Asma also said they are humiliated in many cases which will cause them to lose their courage to serve patients during this critical situation.
Seeking the support of all, she urged all to work together to combat the COVID-19 forgetting all differences. "Don’t humiliate us and rather encourage us as it’ll help us serve you better. If we can keep ourselves safe and healthy, you’ll get proper services from us. You should stand by us for your sake," she added.
A nurse who is working in Rohingya camps under an international NGO told UNB on condition of anonymity that Bangladesh citizens are mostly unaware of safety measures to protect others when they are carrying a disease, while the situation is even worse in Rohingya camps.
"We’ve to handle patients who have cough and fever without any protection anyway. Rohingyas sometimes come and visit us even when they are not sick. Nowadays their frequent visits make us scared and worried as it’ll affect us first," she said with resentment.
Suchanda Halder, a senior staff nurse at Dhaka Medical College Hospital, said nursing is really challenging amid this pandemic situation. "We all have families. We don’t want to sidestep our professional responsibility at this critical moment."
She also said, "Now I don’t want to be the cause of death of my parents and family. It’s a bit scary. If the protected equipment is appropriate, then this fear will lessen."
Expressing her commitment to serve people, the nurse said she is working in defiance of pressure from her family to quit unless the authorities are able to protect her. "But we can’t do that. It’ll be the betrayal with the people of the country and my own profession. Because we’re committed to serving people," she reiterated.
Members of Bangladesh Registered Nurse Oikya Parishad, an association of registered nurses, said they are not getting PPE though they stay with the patients more the time.
They said hospitals do not have any residential facilities for the health workers who are working with COVID-19 cases that the nurses could use instead of potentially taking the disease home to their families.
Nurses are returning home after ending their duty round at the hospitals, which is posing serious risks to their family members as well as others they come in touch with.
At least three nurses have already tested positive with the novel coronavirus in Bangladesh so far, according to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR).
Nurses claimed that lack of sufficient PPE is fueling the safety concerns for them, as the number of coronavirus-infected patients is increasing every day in the country.
Nurses in some countries have protested demanding adequate protective equipment to deal with the deadly coronavirus that has spread worldwide.
The nurses in Bangladesh also hinted at staging such protests if they do not get their safety equipment.
Some of the nurses of private hospitals have resigned from as the hospital authorities were not willing to provide PPE to them.
UNB spoke to one such nurse, named Gulam Yesveer.
He said nurses are getting low priority in terms of safety measures though they are serving people the most. “It would have been suicidal to serve people without any protection during this pandemic situation,” he said when asked why he quit.
Sultana Begum, an expectant mother in her mid-30s, died on April 9 after suffering from fever, cough and respiratory problem -- all symptoms of coronavirus -- raising alarm of the virus spread at her Alokbali village in Narsingdi sadar upazila.
Stricken by fear, villagers obstructed Sultana’s burial suspecting her to be a coronavirus victim.
Denied burial, her father Farid Mia, an old man, was left with no option but to guard the body of her daughter on a boat in the Meghna River in Sadar Upazila of the district.
Then came forward a health department team in his aid and made all the arrangements for his daughter’s burial with the help of local police.
Sultana Begum, an RMG Factory worker in Narayanganj, was so unlucky that her relatives and villagers did not allow her husband, Amanullah, to touch her or see her face for the last time, fearing that she died from coronavirus.
This tragic incident demonstrates how a deadly virus is testing human relations and human rights, reshaping the aspects of death.
According to media reports, people at different parts of the country are creating obstructions to and showing reluctance about burying or handling the bodies of people dying with coronavirus symptoms as misinformation sparked fear among them that the corpse might be a reason for the spread of the virus in their areas.
However, health experts said there is nothing to be worried about handling or burying even the dead bodies of those dying from coronavirus if some protective measures are taken and WHO’s guidelines are followed.
More importantly, they said coronavirus cannot remain alive in a dead body for a long time.
On March 24, the World Health Organisation (WHO) issued some guidelines in this regard. "To date, there’s no evidence of people becoming infected from exposure to the bodies of those who died from Covid-19," it said.
The global heath body also said the safety and wellbeing of everyone who tends to deal with bodies should be the first priority, and before attending a body, people should make sure that necessary hand hygiene and personal protective equipment (PPE) supplies are available.
It also said those who have died from Covid-19 can be buried or cremated. “Those tasked with placing the body in the grave, on the funeral pyre, etc., should wear gloves and wash hands with soap and water after removal of the gloves once the burial is complete.”
Contacted, Vice-Chancellor of the Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University (BSMMU) Prof Kanak Kanti Barua said, “According to the WHO, the virus can’t survive in a dead body for more than three hours. So, if a coronavirus patient dies, the dead body should be given a bath and prepared for funeral or burial after four-five hours,” he said.
He also said the dead body should be washed with soap so that no virus can remain. “I think, there’s no risk of touching any corona patient’s dead body or burying or cremating it wearing protective gears. People shouldn’t be worried about it.”
As precautions, those who are supposed to give bath or handle the body can use personal protective equipment or PPE, face masks, gloves and wrap the body with a sealed polyethene bag.”
Prof Harun-or-Rashid, the head of medicine department of Dhaka Community Medical College & Hospital (DCMCH), said though the WHO says the virus dies after a few hours in the dead bodies, people should remain alert in handling those.
“Very few people should be engaged in dealing with the body and prepare it for janaza and burial,” he said.
The physician said the body should be wrapped up with a fully sealed and impermeable bag after giving a bath and it should not open to show people the face of the dead as people traditionally do.
According to the WHO, he said, burial is the best option for the people who died from coronavirus and there is no possibility of spreading virus from the graveyard. “But people should now stay away from visiting graveyards.”
Founder of Gonoshasthaya Kendra Dr Zafrullah Chowdhury said there are many viruses and parasites that can grow and flourish in dead bodies, but coronavirus cannot survive in dead bodies.
He said people should take some time to handle the body of the corona patients instead of doing it hastily.
Dr Zafrullah said the dead body should be given a bath in conventional ways using soap. “The virus can’t remain alive if the bath is given with soap. So, there’s no reason to be worried about handling the dead bodies. But everyone should remain alert and take the precautionary measures.”
He said a small number of people should join the janaza of any person, let alone the corona-infected one, to maintain social distancing and remain safe. “Those who will take part in the janaza should also use protective gears and face masks and maintain the safe distance to keep them safe.”
The suspension of international and domestic flights, fall in air travel demand and economic uncertainty following the outbreak of coronavirus across the world continue to cause huge losses to airlines in Bangladesh.
Although the operation of special cargo flights continues on their regular routes, all the passenger flights on domestic and international routes except a few with China and the United Kingdom (UK), remain suspended, said Bangladesh Civil Aviation Authority.
Bangladesh Biman’s scheduled passenger flights to the UK have also been suspended.
Biman Bangladesh Airlines has so far counted over Tk 235 crore loss since the outbreak of the global pandemic and the amount of loss continues to rise each day, said Mohibul Haque, Senior Secretary of Civil Aviation & Tourism Ministry.
General Secretary of Aviation Operators Association of Bangladesh (AOAB) and Managing Director of Novoair Mofizur Rahman said the financial condition of the airlines is now very bad due to the COVID-19.
“We won’t be able to operate flights without government help if the situation doesn’t improve. The aviation industry is now under severe threat…how the airlines will survive when the movement of people came to a halt,” he said.
Mofizur Rahman went on to say, “We’re facing trouble in maintaining the management cost, civil aviation charge, payment of the installments of aircraft.”
During this lockdown, different companies have to provide parking charge of aircraft and rent for offices inside airports, he said.
“We’re urging the government to reduce the charges during this crisis moment,” he added.
On March 21, Bangladesh cancelled all the international passenger flights with 10 countries until March 31 that was later extended to restrict the spread of the virus.
International commercial passenger flights with 10 counties -- Malaysia, Oman Singapore, Qatar, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Turkey, India, and Bahrain -- were suspended.
On March 15, Bangladesh suspended on arrival visas for all countries for two weeks that is still effective. Besides, passengers are not allowed to enter Bangladesh from all European countries except England.
On March 19, Biman Bangladesh Airlines cancelled all its flights to Dubai and Abu Dhabi.
Besides, the Bangladesh Biman and US Bangla Airlines also refunded all the passengers who previously booked tickets for different destinations.
Managing Director of Bangladesh Biman Mokabbir Hossain said all flights are suspended until April 15 and it may extend depending on the situation.
All flights will resume operations after directive from the ministry concerned in this regard, he said.
The coronavirus pandemic has had a significant impact on aviation industry due to the resulting travel restrictions as well as slump in demand among travellers. Significant reductions in passenger numbers has resulted in planes flying empty between airports and the cancellation of flights.
On 5 March 2020, the International Air Transport Association estimated that the airline industry could lose between US$ 63 to 113 billion of revenues due to the reduced number of passengers.
IATA had previously estimated revenue losses of around US$30 billion two weeks before their 5 March estimate. By 17 March, IATA had stated that its 5 March estimate was "outdated", and that airlines would require $200 billion in bailouts to survive the crisis.
IATA further revised their revenue loss estimate on March 24 and that is to be $252 billion globally, a 44 percent drop.
Bangladesh has so far reported 21 deaths from coronavirus. The country reported 330 confirmed cases as of Thursday.
The global death toll from coronavirus has reached 95,722 as of Friday morning.
There have been 1,603,719 confirmed cases around the world after the highly contagious disease was first reported in China in December last, according to worldometer.