DHAKA: In the 18 months since Zahid Maleque took office as Bangladesh’s Minister of Health and Family Welfare, he has faced one national emergency after another.
The 61-year-old politician told Arab News that two major health crises meant that he hit the ground running after assuming the high-profile ministerial post.
“First, there was the dengue outbreak which infected 101,354 and killed more than 200 people last year. Despite our limited resources, we successfully overcame that crisis compared to other countries,” he said during an exclusive interview on Monday.
That, however, was a “minor trial” compared to the “Herculean” task of dealing with the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. The first cases in Bangladesh were detected in March and infections have quadrupled in the past month. As of Tuesday, 120,000 people had tested positive for the disease, with nearly 1,600 deaths reported.
A month ago, on May 23, the total number of infections stood at 32,078.
“It’s a Herculean task because we have a high density of people. This is despite the fact that everything has stopped. It’s an unprecedented challenge and something that has never happened in Bangladesh before,” added Maleque, who served as the country’s junior health minister for five years during the Awami League party’s rule.
Listing the challenges faced by his ministry in dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, he said: “Finding experienced human resources is a big task for my office at the moment. For example, to treat patients in the ICU (intensive care unit), we need well-trained experts who can’t be sourced overnight,” adding that ensuring a population of 166 million adhered to social distancing rules and health and safety guidelines was an uphill task in itself.
The COVID-19 crisis has also put a massive dent in the Bangladeshi economy – foreign exchange earnings alone are expected to drop by 25 percent or $4 billion, while the country has already lost $3.15 billion in orders due to the pandemic, according to the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA).
The textile industry is the largest export-earning source for the country, with the sector generating $36 million last year alone.
While most nations are eager to end virus-induced lockdowns to allow them to reboot their economies, the pressure to do so is even more apparent in countries such as Bangladesh where a significant number of people live below the poverty line.
Despite the limitations, the Bangladeshi government has proposed a budget of $3.43 billion for the next financial year to deal with the COVID-19 crisis.
Maleque, however, said finance was not his most immediate concern.
With Bangladesh registering the world’s highest mortality rate among doctors, he said it was his “sacred duty” to protect frontline workers in the war against the virus which had so far infected nearly 4,000 medics and killed 45 doctors.
“To ensure their safety, the government has provided personal protective equipment (PPE), masks, and other safety gear. We have also reduced their working hours. It will be regrettable if we continue to lose more doctors and medics,” the minister added.
Maleque said authorities were planning to add extra beds in hospitals and recruit thousands more health professionals in addition to the “2,000 new doctors, 6,000 nurses, and 3,000 health technicians” already hired by the government in the past few months.
“We can’t increase the number of hospitals overnight. But we can increase the number of beds and treatment facilities, and that is what we are doing now,” he added.
As an additional measure, the government has set up isolation centers in the capital Dhaka – which has the highest concentration of COVID-19 victims in the country – with plans in place to enforce a “zone-based” lockdown soon.
“We are in the process of identifying the worst-affected zones in Dhaka. The government has already initiated a zone-based lockdown in the most-affected areas and is considering the intensity of infection; the areas will be marked as red, yellow, and green. Already, 15 districts have been under the new lockdown for the past 21 days,” he said.
To contain the spread of the virus, Bangladesh enforced a nationwide lockdown more than two months ago, on March 26, but lifted restrictions in “a limited capacity” on May 31, despite a sizeable uptick in infections.
Justifying the government’s decision to reopen offices and industrial units, Maleque pointed out it “had to strike a balance between life and livelihoods.”
He said: “As a developing nation, we have to make it work together. We have to contain the virus and keep rolling the economic cycle of the country. In this context, we had no other choice,” adding that despite a sharp increase in the infection rate, Bangladesh was yet to procure rapid testing kits.
“It (the procurement of testing kits) has yet to be approved by the WHO (World Health Organization). There are some risk factors too, as it generates wrong results in some cases. If a coronavirus positive is falsely detected as negative, the person can infect many others. It’s also dangerous for the infected person. Therefore, we decided against using any rapid test kits unless we get reliable ones,” he said.
Admitting that Bangladesh had not been able to achieve the desired results from the lockdown, Maleque said his ministry’s top priorities for the next year would be to “ensure treatment for all COVID-19 patients in the country.”
He added: “The lockdown was successful only to some extent. If people don’t follow the instructions issued by the government, it will be complicated to manage and mitigate the ongoing health emergency.”
However, he remained optimistic about overcoming the crisis and was grateful for the “opportunity to serve people.”
Maleque said: “There are challenges of course, but there’s a satisfaction in saving lives. Once we overcome this crisis, people will remember us forever.”
Bangladeshi health minister facing 'Herculean' task – Arab News