Sayed Ullah, one of the Rohingyas landed in Bhasan Char on Friday, could not hold his feelings of extreme happiness seeing all the facilities there and kept calling relatives back in Cox's Bazar camps to join the next batch.
"Alhamdulillah. We are extremely happy. I had never imagined that such a beautiful place is waiting for us with so many facilities," he told UNB over phone.
Syed made dozens of phone calls to his relatives and friends who are still living in Cox's Bazar camps and encouraged them to join the second batch without any hesitation.
"I kept calling them. That's the first thing I did after my arrival in Bhasan Char," he said.
The 30-year-old Rohingya man along with his wife, three daughters and only son reached Bhasan Char in the afternoon.
"Nobody did force us to come here. I came here voluntarily. Everybody will be willing to come here once they see the facilities," he said.
The Rohingya man said he had a little bit of fear in mind and prayed to Almighty Allah all the way to Bhasan Char by ship. "We are more than happy now. Everybody looks happy here. We thank Allah as we got more than what we thought of."
His brothers and sisters are still in Cox's Bazar though many distant relatives are also with him in Bhasan Char.
Syed Ullah expressed satisfaction seeing mosques, housing facilities better than Cox's Bazar and necessary things.
In the face of growing concern over the extreme congestion in the camps of Cox’s Bazar and to avert any risk of death due to landslides and other unwarranted incidents, the government has decided to relocate, in phases, 1,00,000 Rohingyas to Bhashan Char.
Accordingly, in the first phase, more than 1600 Rohingyas, who expressed their willingness voluntarily for relocation, were shifted to Bhashan Char on Friday.
The Rohingyas were brought to Chattogram by buses and kept in a school at night.
They had dinner and started for Bhasan Char in the morning after having breakfast.
The first batch reached the Bhasan Char around 3pm.
"We are going to Bhasan Char. Nobody did force me or other members of my family," one of the Rohingya mothers said expressing satisfaction over their relocation from the crowded camps.
The relocation has become imperative to decongest the overcrowded camps in Cox’s Bazar that have temporarily been accommodating nearly a million of Rohingyas with many more thousands born each year, said the government.
It said the deteriorating security situation due to prolonged stay of these frustrated people in Cox’s Bazar also compelled the government of Bangladesh to come up with a contingency plan and develop Bhashan Char from its own budgetary allocation.
Accordingly, the government invested more than USD 350.00 million to develop the island.
The 13,000 acres island has all modern amenities, year-round fresh water, beautiful lake and proper infrastructure and enhanced facilities, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MoFA) said.
These include uninterrupted supply of electricity and water, agricultural plots, cyclone shelters, two hospitals, four community clinics, mosques, warehouses, telecommunication services, police station, recreation and learning centers, playgrounds, etc.
In contrast to the makeshift structures of the camps in Cox’s Bazar, the accommodation in Bhashan Char is strongly-built with concrete foundation which can withstand natural disasters such as cyclones and tidal waves, said the government.
Super Cyclone Amphan proved the strength of the structures of Bhashan Char, it said.
Contrary to the apprehension of some quarters about the feasibility of the island, Bhashan Char stood firm against the massive storm, said the government.
Despite the heightened tidal wave, all the 1,440 houses and 120 shelter stations in the island remained unharmed, the statement said.
The island is connected with the mainland through waterways.
Facilities for Rohingyas
The MoFA said the government of Bangladesh has ensured adequate supply of food along with proper sanitation and medical facilities for Rohingyas in Bhashan Char.
Appropriate hospitals with highly-qualified health professionals, adequate Covid testing and treatment facilities are there in place, it said.
In addition to government agencies, around 22 NGOs are already there to extend all possible support to the relocated Rohingyas.
Adequate security has been ensured in the island by deploying police personnel, including policewomen, and the area is fully covered with CCTV cameras.
On the relocation, the government said its position was very clear and transparent from the very beginning that any relocation would be entirely on a voluntary basis.
Accordingly, a good number of Rohingya representatives undertook a “go-and-see” visit to Bhashan Char to see the facilities and make an independent and informed choice, MoFA said.
A number of NGOs and journalists also visited the island.
All of them expressed their high satisfaction at the available facilities in Bhashan Char, MoFA added.
A media team and a group of senior journalists are already in Bhashan Char.
More importantly, the relocation was preceded by adequate preparations and consultations held with different stakeholders, MoFA said.
"Several rounds of discussions, based on the queries of the United Nations, were also arranged and we hope that the international community and the United Nations, as per its mandate, will be involved in the process very soon," the statement reads.
The relocation is part of the broader plan of repatriation which is the only priority for the Government of Bangladesh.
The MoFA said the skill development and livelihood opportunity that the Rohingyas would be able to avail in Bhashan Char would prepare them for their reintegration in the Myanmar society on return.
The types of economic activities such as fishing, agriculture, goat rearing, etc that they used to pursue in Rakhine state are available in Bhashan Char.
Repatriation attempter failed twice in November 2018 and August 2019 amid Rohingyas' lack of trust in the Myanmar government.
Bangladesh and Myanmar signed the repatriation deal on November 23, 2017.
On January 16, 2018, Bangladesh and Myanmar signed a document on “Physical Arrangement”, which was supposed to facilitate the return of Rohingyas to their homeland.
Bangladesh thinks Rohingyas will "jeopardise regional and international security" if the 1.1 million Rohingya people are left unattended and not given the opportunity to return to their homeland.
As the world awaits a Covid-19 vaccine, a US public health expert says the vast majority of people in Bangladesh and other parts of the world will have to wait a bit longer than expected due to limited global capacity of vaccine production.
"It's going to take time for the vaccine production to get a level where you can see a real impact," Country Director of Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr Michael Friedman told UNB in an interview.
He said the vast majority of people have to wait a while - a long while, which he says, is a little bit unfortunate but that the reality of the world.
Dr Friedman, having a diverse 27 years of work experience in the US and the global stage, said vaccine is becoming very interesting globally, and three vaccines are showing very positive results.
"This is very exciting news for the world. Unfortunately, I still believe that it is going to take time to get enough vaccines in the first six months to really make a difference," he said.
Dr Friedman said this is true for many parts of the world, including Bangladesh, as it takes time to develop capacity.
The current world population is around 7.8 billion and over 15 billion does of vaccines are needed to address it globally.
The US expert said only 7 percent people of the world will be covered in the first six months considering the production capacity of three promising vaccines.
"So, we’ve to be very realistic here that the vast majority of people may have to wait for a year. It could be more than a year," he said, adding that he sees a real challenge for Bangladesh.
Dr Friedman hinted that most of the vaccines will go to USA and European countries as there are issue of prepaid (to purchase vaccines) and they are investigating in the vaccine producing companies to get vaccines on priority basis.
He also said many countries will show their high infection rates of coronavirus as the reason. "So, in the first six months, it's not going to be easy for many countries to get enough vaccines."
The US expert said developing one’s own capacity and doing collaboration is the best way to get enough vaccines.
"I think Bangladesh is trying to do so but it’ll take time to develop such capacity. This is a very technical process having technical challenges," he said.
Dr Friedman also talked about priorities and who should get initial doses.
He recommended that most high risk people- health workers, essential security forces, perhaps key decision makers in the government and the vulnerable groups should get vaccines on priority basis.
The government has already signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) with the Serum Institute of India (SII) to collect three crore shots of Covishield, the Indian version of Oxford-AtraZeneca's coronavirus vaccine.
Health Secretary Abdul Mannan hoped that Coronavirus vaccine will be available in Bangladesh by February 2021.
Bangladesh has highlighted the need for making the Covid-19 vaccines available, affordable and distributing those equitably to all countries that need those most.
A strong global commitment and collaboration to treat Covid-19 vaccine as a ‘global public good’ is absolutely essential, Bangladesh says.
Unicef has begun laying the groundwork for the rapid, safe and efficient delivery of the eventual vaccine by purchasing and pre-positioning syringes and other necessary equipment.
As soon as Covid-19 vaccines successfully emerge from trials and are licensed and recommended for use, the world will need as many syringes as doses of vaccine.
To begin preparations, this year, Unicef will stockpile 520 million syringes in its warehouses, part of a larger plan of 1 billion syringes by 2021, to guarantee initial supply and help ensure that syringes arrive in countries before the Covid-19 vaccines.
During 2021, assuming there are enough doses of Covid-19 vaccines, Unicef anticipates delivering over 1 billion syringes to support Covid-19 vaccination efforts on top of the 620 million syringes that Unicef will purchase for other vaccination programmes against other diseases such as measles, typhoid and more.
“Vaccinating the world against Covid-19 will be one of the largest mass undertakings in human history, and we’ll need to move as quickly as the vaccines can be produced,” said Henrietta Fore, Unicef Executive Director.
“In order to move fast later, we must move fast now. By the end of the year, we’ll already have over half a billion syringes pre-positioned where they can be deployed quickly and cost effectively. That’s enough [syringes] to wrap around the world one and a half times.”
In Bangladesh, 35 people died of Covid-19 in the last 24 hours till 8:00am Thursday, according to the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS).
The total number of deaths reached 6,748 showing 1.43 percent death rate.
The total number of infected people is over 471,739.
As three Covid-19 vaccines look ready to be rolled out soon, now one question is crossing the public mind where actually Bangladesh is in the line to have one.
Many health experts think that things are getting complicated for Bangladesh to get one anytime soon as the vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford University has triggered controversies.
They said Bangladesh has been mainly expecting to have the AstraZeneca-Oxford vaccine through the Serum Institute of India (SII) since the two other vaccines of Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna are unsuitable for the country due to preservation-related problems.
Unlike the two, the AstraZeneca vaccine does not have to be stored at ultra-cold temperatures, making it easier to distribute in developing countries.
Scientists have, however, raised a question about the efficacy and results of the experimental Covid-19 vaccine, and AstraZeneca and Oxford University have also acknowledged a manufacturing error.
On November 5, Bangladesh signed an agreement to get 30 million doses of the AstraZeneca’s vaccine from India's Serum Institute once it gets available, but the UK becomes the first country to approve Pfizer's Covid-19 vaccine and its first shots to be rolled out next week.
Under the circumstances, local health experts said Bangladesh should now focus on other preventive measures like ensuring cent percent use of masks and encouraging people to follow health hygiene rules to contain the deadly virus alongside continuing strong efforts to have any other effective vaccine.
More homework needed on vaccine
Contacted, Dr Be-Nazir Ahmed, former director (disease control) of the DGHS, said Bangladesh has signed the deal with Serum to buy AstraZeneca’s vaccine, but there are now many questions about the trial results of the vaccine candidate.
“There’re also controversies over the effectiveness and trial process of the vaccines developed by China and Russia. So, we’ve to carefully observe the developments relating to the vaccines around the world,” he said.
The vaccine expert said though the two American experimental vaccines look highly effective, those are unsuitable for Bangladesh due to temperature-related problems. “So, it’s true that Bangladesh’s vaccine fate will hang in balance if the AstraZeneca’s vaccine finally fails to get approval.”
In this situation, Dr Be-Nazir said, Bangladesh needs some solid homework on the vaccine. “We need to have a vaccine committee and some scientific ones to evaluate the developments over the vaccine and assess which one is suitable for Bangladesh. We need to check our existing cold chain and make it ready to preserve if any suitable vaccine is found.”
Vaccine approval a long process
Former World Health Organisation (WHO) Regional Adviser Muzaherul Huq said the vaccine which has efficacy, quality and safety is still not found. “Some potential vaccine candidates are still at the trial stage.”
Once the trials are completed, Muzaher said, a committee of WHO will examine whether that have been conducted systematically following the proper guidelines and scrutinise all the findings of the trials.
“If the WHO committee finds everything fine, then they’ll recommend for the approval of a vaccine. Later, the CDC of America, China and other regulatory bodies will approve it and give permission for marketing worldwide. But it’s still uncertain when these processes will be completed as no candidate has still reached the approval stage,” he said.
The health expert thinks Bangladesh should not be in a hurry regarding making any deal with any vaccine candidate until the approvals by WHO.
Modernising Institute of Public Health
Dr Muzaher said Bangladesh can take preparation for manufacturing any successful vaccine. “If any country wants to manufacture a vaccine, it needs to ensure the good manufacturing practice and fulfil the conditions of the WHO.”
He said the Institute of Public Health (IPH) can apply to the WHO for manufacturing the vaccine in Bangladesh as Serum did it to manufacture AstraZeneca’s vaccine. “If WHO gives permission, IPH can sign a deal with any vaccine candidate to manufacture their vaccine here.”
The expert said the government should now take immediate steps for enhancing the capacity of IPH and modernise it so that the country can produce the vaccine.
Determining Vaccine Demand
Dr Muzaher said Bangladesh still does not know how many doses of vaccine the country initially needs only for lack of any survey.
“We need to conduct a national-level serosurveillance survey to know the actual data about the exposure levels and the presence of antibodies in people,” he added.
Dr Muzaher continued: “We need the rapid antibody test to see the level of immunity people have. It’ll help get an idea about the required doses of vaccine and set the priority for its justified distribution.”
He said the government should take a strategy to give the vaccine first to those who lack antibody.
Dr Be-Nazir also echoed Muzaher saying it is now necessary to know how much people of the country have so far been infected with the virus through a rapid anti-body test or a survey.
“We need to decide whether we’ll give the vaccine to those who have already beat the virus,” he said.
“I’m also a Covid survivor. I won’t take the vaccine at the initial stage. I’ll first observe the results of the vaccine as I’ve the antibody. I don’t know how the vaccine will work in my body. So, I’ve to wait and see the situation before taking the vaccine,” Be-Nazir observed.
Yearly dose may require
Prof Dr Mohammed Atiqur Rahman, the treasurer of BSMMU, said “We should understand that vaccine is not a treatment, rather a preventive tool. We still don’t know how long the vaccine can work or prevent the virus.”
He said different studies and reports suggest that the corona vaccine will be similar to influenzas’ that has to be taken every year.
Dr Atiq said a vaccine is the best way to prevent the virus. “But we won’t be able to completely eliminate the virus through the vaccine. There’s a vaccine of influenzas, but still many people die of the disease every year in America and many other countries.”
He said Bangladesh should now give the main focus on other preventive measures alongside remaining active to get an effective and suitable vaccine.
“In the absence of a vaccine, I think, masking up is the best option to prevent corona infections. The government should strictly enforce its directive-- no mask no service,” Atiq added.
The signing of a peace deal between PCJSS and the then Awami League government in 1997 did not mean anything only for the CHT region. It was, in fact, more than that.
Twenty-three years have elapsed since the signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord, but some conditions of the historic treaty still remain unfulfilled due to “non-cooperation from some armed groups.”
Locals and officials say these groups are trying to destabilise peace in the three hill districts again.
The main objective of the historic treaty was to establish peach in the hilly region and ensure the country’s progress.
But, they said, peace has not fully returned in the mountains over the last two decades as the armed groups remained engaged in various terrorist activities, including murder, kidnapping and extortion.
One of the major conditions of the deal was to develop the three hill districts -- Rangamati, Khagrachhari and Bandarban --as tourism hotspots.
But it cannot be properly implemented due to the opposition by the anti-peace treaty groups, the officials said.
On December 2, 1997, PCJSS (Parbatya Chattagram Jana Sanghati Samity) signed the peace deal with the then Awami League government, led by Sheikh Hasina, ending over two decades of tribal insurgency and bloodletting in the hill districts.
Then Jatiya Sangsad Chief Whip Abul Hasnat Abdullah signed the deal on behalf of the government while Joritindra Bodhipriyo Larma (Santu Larma) on behalf of PCJSS.
The signing of the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) Peace Accord.
But a group of ethnic minority people, led by Prasit Bikash Khisa, formed the United People's Democratic Front (UPDF) in 1998 opposing the peace treaty.
PCJSS also faced a split as some of its members quit it in 2007 and formed PCJSS (Reformists) led by Sudha Sindho Khisa.
UPDF’s another armed group also formed a separate platform the UPDF (Democratic), led by Tapan Jyoti Chakma (alias Borma and Jalwa) on November 15, 2017.
Extortion & Killing
These groups have reportedly been engaged in various crimes, including extortion, kidnapping and killing, locals alleged.
They said sometimes they clash with each claiming the lives of both Pahari and Bengali people and hampering development activities.
According to law enforcers, the four hilly armed groups have been at loggerheads just for establishing supremacy and extortion.
They said though there is no specific study, law enforcers, local police and intelligence agencies said around Tk 400 crore is extorted in the CHT region every year.
They said the local armed groups are constantly changing their tactics in the case of extortion.
“They’ve chosen mobile banking as the way of collecting toll to dodge the eyes of security forces. So, it’s now difficult to identify them. Those who pay the toll money also don’t want to speak up about the extortion in fear of reprisal,” an officer of a leading Intelligence agency in Rangamati district told UNB wishing anonymity.
Contacted over phone, former state minister for CHT Affairs Dipankar Talukdar said the four-armed groups active in the region are basically “extortionists”.
He said the negative attitude of the JSS is the main barrier towards full implementation of the peace accord. “Armed groups must surrender the illegal arms to pave the way for the smooth implementation of the peace accord.”
He said the armed groups are now targeting the Awami League leaders and activists in the hilly districts as part of their move to destabilise the region.
"Maintaining a hostile relation with Awami League leaders and activists, it’s not possible to bring peace in CHT," Dipankar added.
He said JSS should come forward with a positive mentality to restore peace in the CHT. “Otherwise, all efforts will go in vain.”
According to official statistics, 376 people, including 120 Bengalis, have been killed in three districts of the CHT in various incidents like extortion and conflict over supremacy from January 2014 to October this year.
Besides, 536 people, including 169 Bangalis, have been abducted during the period.
Sources at the local police and intelligence agencies said 105 extortionists in the CHT have been detained by law enforcers since January 2019 to September 2020.
Locals said they have to pay a certain amount of money to the armed groups for whatever is sold in markets.
“Even if you sell a banana stick, you’ll have to pay a portion of the money to the armed groups from there,” said a resident of Rangamti town.
Hazards in dealing with crimes
Talking to UNB, Superintendent of Police (SP) of Rangamati District Alamgir Kabir, said there are some obstacles to the prompt arrest of accused and put them on trial in murder cases due to geographic location of the CHT and some other reasons.
“Once a crime is committed in a remote area, it’s difficult to find an eyewitness. In many cases, it takes three days to come from a remote area to testify. They don't want to do that. Linguistic problem is also a barrier to any investigation and finding out offenders as the different tribal groups use different colloquial.”
“Army, police and BGB personnel usually jointly conduct operations and we take instant action if we get any information about extortion. That’s why they’re constantly changing the strategy of extortion,” Kabir said.
He said the criminals now receive toll money through mobile banking instead of collecting it physically. “So, we now try to take action through tracking.”
Obstruction to Development
A senior officer in the Rangamati district administration said tribal leaders and armed groups have been directly and indirectly opposing the development of the region and tourism industry in the CHT only to exploit the residents of the region and maintain their supremacy.
He said the members of JSS (original) and UPDF keep on carrying out various criminal activities, including making attacks on tourist vehicles and hijacking to create obstacles to development of the tourism industry in the region and discourage the arrival of tourists.
A US public health expert has suggested that reopening of schools in Bangladesh could be considered during Covid-19 ‘as school closures have clear negative impacts on child health, education and development’.
"It should be considered in a policy decision about keeping schools closed or open," Country Director of Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Dr Michael Friedman told UNB in an interview saying he would prefer keeping schools open instead of restaurants.
Shedding lights on the global scenario, the expert, having a diverse 27 years of work experience in the US and the global stage, said the decision makers have decided to emphasise the current population of adults, not the future generation of children.
He said the decision makers apparently have decided to sacrifice the future generation of children to help survive the current generation of adults.
"It's a huge question. Is closing schools helping? Is it a smart thing to do? If you ask me, you’ve a choice between closing schools and closing restaurants. I would say close the restaurants but keep the schools open," said the expert.
School closures have clear negative impacts on child health, education and development, family income and the overall economy, says the World Health Organisation (WHO).
The decision to reopen schools should include consideration of the following benefits -- allowing students to complete their studies and continue to the next level, essential services, access to nutrition, child welfare, such as preventing violence against children, social and psychological wellbeing, access to reliable information on how to keep themselves and others safe, reducing the risk of non-return to school and benefit to society, WHO said.
Dr Friedman said children are less likely to get Covid-19 and much less likely to transmit the virus to their parents and grandparents.
And, he said, there are less likely for children to get severe diseases.
"If there’s a child sitting here with an adult and both have Covid, you’ll be more likely to get Covid-19 from the adult, not from the child," the public health expert explained.
So, the question is: Are schools going to increase transmission? Dr Friedman said that is not true for Covid-19 but it is true for influenza.
The expert who lived and worked in four continents said it is an extremely important issue and that is not an easy decision (reopening schools).
Dr Friedman said education, especially female education, is the number one reason for the improved health outcomes in the world. "The damage is huge if you no longer educate people almost for a whole year.
We need to understand the public health implications of not having kids going to school for a year," he added.
Dr Friedman said online education is mostly effective for the advanced students and they are having a productive year. "But for the vast majority of students - I feel very bad for them. They don't have the same capability and resources."
The public health expert referred to a modeling study in the US on the first three months of the pandemic and estimated 5.7 million years of life lost due to school closures.
These findings suggest that the decision to close US public primary schools in the early months of 2020 may be associated with a decrease in life expectancy for US children.
The CDC is conducting serology study in six metropolitan cities in Bangladesh.
"We don't have the results yet. We’ll know it soon. That will give us a lot more information about how well we’re controlling the virus and what we can expect in the future," said the CDC expert.
Serology is the study of antibodies in blood serum and it is being done throughout the world.
Serologic testing helps retrospectively determine the size of an outbreak or extent of infection in a population under study.
The US expert visited 15 districts of Bangladesh in the first four months of Covid-19 to see what is happening on the ground and remote areas. "That's not easy."
100% Mask, Handwashing Policy
Dr Friedman said Bangladesh still can continue allowing restaurants and keep businesses running keeping people safe.
"The only way you can really do that by introducing 100 percent mask policy and 100 percent handwashing policy," he said adding that social distancing is more difficult in Bangladesh.
He said Bangladesh can keep its economy growing at the same time following these two strategies strictly.
The expert said the challenge in Bangladesh is that it wants some relaxation to help keep the economy growing, help people eat and earn.
"As a public health person, I’ve to balance between people's livelihoods and their protection. So, that's the tough balance," he said.
Dr Friedman said the government of Bangladesh has so far done pretty good job balancing between the two.
Second Wave or Still 1st Wave
The US expert said the second wave could happen once the first wave is over, and the first wave has really never ended.
He said the current wave may go up because people are less worried about protecting themselves. "That will increase the risk of getting infected apart from cold weather as a reason."
Dr Friedman thinks the big factor is not the weather but people's behaviour is the big factor.
"If people don't take viruses seriously thinking it's almost over, if they don't wear masks, go to social events and use public transportation, they can get Covid and the wave may go bigger," he said, adding that these all together can make a second wave of Covid-19 infection.
Asked about Bangladesh's success in dealing Covid-19, the US expert said it is a difficult thing to judge but history will look back whether it was a success or not.
"At this moment, it's hard to say because we don't have all the information yet whether global response on Covid-19 has been successful or unsuccessful. But we know there’re things to learn already from this crisis," he said.