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DHAKA, Bangladesh — Waiting among hundreds of fellow travelers to catch a ferry out of Bangladesh’s capital, unemployed construction worker Mohammed Nijam knew he was risking catching the coronavirus, but he felt it was even riskier to stay in Dhaka with another lockdown looming.“I have to pay rent every month even though I have no work,” he said, adding that his landlord had been bothering him for money even as he was struggling just to feed himself. “I’d rather go to my village home and lead life as God lets me.”Nijam is among the tens of millions of Bangladeshis shopping and traveling this week during a controversial eight-day pause in the country’s strict coronavirus lockdown that the government is allowing for the Islamic festival Eid al-Adha. The suspension has been panned by health experts who warn it could exacerbate an ongoing surge fueled by the highly contagious delta variant, which was first detected in neighboring India.“Already there is a scarcity of beds, ICUs, while our health care providers are exhausted,” said said Be-Nazir Ahmed, a public health expert and former chief of the government’s Health Directorate. “So if the situation worsens and more patients come to hospitals, it will be near impossible to deal with the crisis.”With the spread of the virus rampant, most everything in Bangladesh was ordered shut on July 1, from markets to mass transportation. Soldiers and border guards patrolled the streets and thousands were arrested and sent to jail for violating the lockdown.Yet even with the new restrictions, virus deaths still hovered around 200 each day and daily infections were still around 11,000, both thought to be undercounts. On Sunday, 225 deaths and 11,758 infections were reported.Despite the warnings from experts — and with just over 4 million of the country’s 160 million people fully vaccinated — the government announced that from July 15-23, all restrictions would be lifted and everything would be reopened so people could celebrate the festival, which is normally a boon to the economy.“But, in all situations people must stay alert, use face masks and strictly follow health instructions,” a government policy statement said.Government officials have not responded to criticism of the move. An official with the Ministry of Public Administration, which issued the order pausing the lockdown, referred The Associated Press to the policy statement when asked for comment. Calls and emails to a spokesperson with the Health Ministry were not returned.A junior minister from the Ministry of Public Administration, Farhad Hossain, told local media on Saturday that the lockdown needed to be eased as a lot of business revolves around the festival.The result in the capital has been crowds of people jamming into malls and markets to do their holiday shopping and others thronging ports and bus stations as they try to make their way to their rural hometowns.During the last major Islamic festival in May, an estimated 10 million of Dhaka’s 20 million residents left to celebrate with their families. A similar number could travel this week, especially since many like Nijam, the construction worker, may be looking to wait out the next lockdown in their villages.Among the huge crowd of people shopping at Dhaka’s New Market, was Shah Alam, a dental technician.“As the government has relaxed the situation for a few days, we are coming to markets to buy necessary goods,” Alam said. “We are trying to follow the health safety guidelines.”Ahmed, the health expert, said he sees the main risks of suspending the lockdown as people from the city spreading the virus to their villages and people spreading the virus while they pack into markets for their shopping, especially cattle markets where millions of people will buy animals to sacrifice for Eid al-Adha.“Maybe hundreds of thousands of cattle markets will be arranged throughout the country starting from remote village up to city, and the cattle sellers and others engaged in the business are mainly coming from rural areas, and possibly they will bring virus with them,” he said.According to his estimates, 30 million to 40 million people will gather for prayers in mosques or open fields across the country for the festival on Wednesday.“The Eid congregations are going to be a superspreading event,” he said.He said the month after the festival will be a critical time for a country that has already tallied nearly 1.1 million infections and nearly 18,000 deaths from the pandemic.“We may not actually avoid a catastrophic situation,” he said.———Associated Press video journalist Al-emrun Garjon contributed to this report.
DHAKA, Bangladesh — Police in Bangladesh arrested eight people Saturday on murder charges in connection with a factory fire that killed at least 52 people, many of whom were trapped inside by an illegally locked door, a senior police official said.The blaze began Thursday night at the five-story Hashem Foods Ltd. factory in Rupganj, just outside the capital Dhaka, sending huge clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky. Police discovered piles of bodies Friday afternoon after the fire was extinguished.”We have arrested them for murder charges,” Jayedul Alam, police superintendent for Narayanganj district, told The Associated Press by phone. “They are in our custody now.”Home Minister Asaduzzman Khan said that among those detained is the managing director of Sajeeb Group, which owns the factory.The minister did not provide further details, but said those responsible would be punished.“It’s a murder,” Khan told reporters as he visited the factory site Saturday.By Saturday evening, a court in Dhaka allowed all eight suspects to remain in police custody for four days for interrogation.Bangladesh has a tragic history of industrial disasters, including factories catching fire with workers locked inside. Big international brands, which employ tens of thousands of low-paid workers in Bangladesh, have come under heavy pressure to improve factory conditions.In similar cases, factory owners have faced culpable homicide charges for negligence, and it’s illegal for a factory to lock its exits when workers are inside during production hours.The main exit of the factory that caught fire Thursday was locked from the inside, a Fire Service and Civil Defense official said, and many of those who died were trapped.One of them was 23-year-old Rima Akter, who made desperate calls to her family as the fire engulfed the factory.On Saturday, her mother and other family members struggled to identify the young woman’s remains in the morgue at the Dhaka Medical College Hospital.“We have checked 36 body bags, but it is very difficult to identify her,” her brother-in-law Arafat Rahman said.Her mother, Josna Begum, cried as officials tried to reassure several families waiting outside the hospital that their loved ones’ bodies would be returned once DNA tests were completed. Forensic experts worked to identify the dead, taking DNA samples from victims’ family members, and by late Saturday afternoon samples from 33 of the deceased had been collected, officials at the hospital said.“My daughter worked to provide for her educational expenses. She was attending online classes and exams. I have no one else in the world … what is there left for me to do now?” Josna Begum said.Prova Barman, father of Kompa Rani Barman, who died in the fire, spoke to reporters in front of the factory Saturday.“My daughter’s body was found over here. She was on the third floor. The supervisor locked in many girls there, including my daughter, during the fire. Many girls could not escape after the gate was locked,” he said.Other workers jumped from the upper floors, and at least 26 suffered injuries, the United News of Bangladesh agency reported Friday.The factory is a subsidiary of Sajeeb Group, a Bangladeshi company that produces juice under Pakistan’s Lahore-based Shezan International Ltd. According to the group’s website, the company exports its products to a number of countries including Australia, the United States, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Bhutan, Nepal and nations in the Middle East and Africa.Despite the South Asian nation’s rapid economic growth, corruption and lax enforcement have resulted in many deaths over the years.In 2012, about 117 workers died when they were trapped behind locked exits in a garment factory in Dhaka.The following year, more than 1,100 people were killed when a building that housed five garment factories collapsed, becoming the country’s worst industrial disaster.Investigators initially said those accused of wrongdoing would be charged with culpable homicide, which carries a maximum punishment of seven years in jail. They later changed the charges to murder due to the gravity of the disaster.However, powerful factory owners often take advantage of the slow pace of the legal system, dragging out the process for years. The murder cases in the 2013 factory collapse are still ongoing.The tragedy did spark tougher safety rules for the garment industry, but many other sectors fail to maintain safety standards and disasters have continued.In February 2019, a blaze ripped through a 400-year-old area cramped with apartments, shops and warehouses in the oldest part of Dhaka, killing at least 67 people.———AP video journalist Al-Emrun Garjon contributed to the story.
DHAKA, Bangladesh — A fire engulfed a food and beverage factory outside Bangladesh’s capital, killing at least 52 people, many of whom were trapped inside by an illegally locked door, fire officials said Friday.The blaze began Thursday night at the five-story Hashem Foods Ltd. factory in Rupganj, just outside Dhaka, sending huge clouds of black smoke billowing into the sky. Police initially gave a toll of three dead, but then discovered piles of bodies on Friday afternoon after the fire was extinguished.So far 52 bodies have been recovered, but the top two floors of the factory have yet to be searched, said Debasish Bardhan, deputy director of the Fire Service and Civil Defense.He said the main exit of the factory was locked from the inside and many of those who died were trapped.Many workers jumped from the upper floors of the factory, and at least 26 suffered injuries, the United News of Bangladesh agency reported.Information about how many people were in the factory and how many were missing was not immediately available.“For now, we only have these details. After searching the top floors we will be able to get a complete picture,” Bardhan said.Bangladesh has a tragic history of industrial disasters, including factories catching fire with the workers locked inside. Continuing corruption and lax enforcement have resulted in many deaths over the years, and big international brands, which employ tens of thousands of low-paid workers in Bangladesh, have come under heavy pressure to improve factory conditions after fires and other disasters killed thousands of people.The factory that caught fire Thursday was subsidiary of Sajeeb Group, a Bangladeshi company that produces juice under Pakistan’s Lahore-based Shezan International Ltd., said Kazi Abdur Rahman, the group’s senior general manager for export.According to the group’s website, the company exports its products to a number of countries including Australia, the United States, Malaysia, Singapore, India, Bhutan, Nepal and nations in the Middle East and Africa.Rahman told The Associated Press by phone that the company is fully compliant with international standards, but he was not certain whether the exit of the factory was locked. According to Bangladesh’s factory laws, a factory cannot lock its exit when workers are inside during production hours.“We are a reputed company; we maintain rules,” he said. “What happened today is very sad. We regret it.”As the recovery effort was carried out Friday, victims in white body bags were piled in a fleet of ambulances as relatives wailed. As the heavy smoke continued to rise from the still smoldering factory, weeping family members of missing workers waited anxiously for news of loved ones outside the charred site.Earlier, family members clashed with police as they waited overnight without any word of the fate of their loved ones.The government ordered an investigation into the cause of the fire.Past industrial tragedies have often been attributed to safety lapses that still plague the South Asian country despite its rapid economic growth.In 2012, about 117 workers died when they were trapped behind locked exits in a garment factory in Dhaka.The country’s worst Industrial disaster came the following year, when the Rana Plaza garment factory outside Dhaka collapsed, killing more than 1,100 people.Authorities imposed tougher safety rules after that disaster and the country’s garment industry has since become largely compliant under domestic and global watchdogs. But many other local industries fail to maintain safety compliance and the disasters have continued.In February 2019, a blaze ripped through a 400-year-old area cramped with apartments, shops and warehouses in the oldest part of Dhaka and killed at least 67 people. Another fire in Old Dhaka in a house illegally storing chemicals killed at least 123 people in 2010.The International Labor Organization said in a 2017 report that Bangladesh’s regulatory framework and inspections “had not been able to keep pace with the development of the industry.”
DHAKA, Bangladesh — In a state-run hospital near Bangladesh’s border with India, Shahinul Islam prays his father does not become one of the facility’s more than 300 patients who’ve died this month from the coronavirus.Hundreds like his father are struggling to breathe in the COVID-19 treatment unit, while Islam waits in an emergency room packed with people. Relatives rush in and out, desperately trying to find oxygen cylinders for their loved ones.The crowds of COVID-19 patients and worried kin are new scenes for the 1,200-bed Rajshahi Medical College Hospital, which serves border communities being overrun by the more infectious delta variant first detected in neighboring India.Over 450 people with COVID-19 were admitted on Tuesday to the state-run hospital in Rajshahi district’s main city.Islam said his entire family has been shunned by people in his home village closer to the border. “The other villagers are afraid of us. They don’t talk to us. When they see us on the road, they take a different path,” he said. “We are suffering a lot,” he added.Rising infections and crowded hospitals are being seen across Bangladesh, where a stringent lockdown starts Thursday. The government will deploy military soldiers, paramilitary border officers and riot police to enforce the lockdown, set initially for one week. Authorities warn that the rapid surge in border areas is accelerating the virus’ spread further into Bangladesh, and the increasing number of infections from the delta variant could devastate the South Asian nation of more than 160 million people.“If people do not maintain health safety rules and if they do not stay at home, this wave of the pandemic in Bangladesh could be catastrophic. It spreads fast and it kills more people,” said A.S.M. Alamgir, a chief scientific officer of the government’s Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research in the capital, Dhaka.Many border districts in northern and southwestern Bangladesh were spared from COVID-19 until now, so people lack antibodies against the virus. That combined with the large numbers of unvaccinated people makes the population much more vulnerable.Just over 4 million people are fully immunized. Another 1.5 million have received one dose, but the shortage of Oxford-AstraZeneca imports, halted by India, have left them uncertain when they’ll get their second dose.The Rajshahi hospital is also short of the type of oxygen supply system necessary for critical patients at a time when it’s seeing more and more patients with worryingly low oxygen levels. High flow nasal cannula delivers steady continuous oxygen to such patients, but government hospitals in border districts have been forced to rely on portable oxygen cylinders instead.“They can’t be managed properly with just oxygen cylinders. If we can’t provide them with central oxygen line, God forbid, the casualties may increase,” said Brig. Gen. Shamim Yazdani, director of the hospital.Bangladesh’s earlier virus outbreak caused infections and deaths to explode in crowded cities like the national capital Dhaka, but since late May, smaller towns and villages in the northern and southwestern border regions have become the major concern, said the scientist, Alamgir.After the pandemic hit a devastating peak in April in India, Bangladesh shut the border. Still, many travelled to and from India illegally, bringing with them new infections. The situation in India has now eased, but in Bangladesh, it has only escalated.The South Asian nation has confirmed over 900,000 cases in total, including more than 14,000 deaths since March last year while experts say the actual figures could be more. On Monday, daily infections touched a record 8,364 — almost double from last week, according to the health ministry. Sunday saw its highest reported deaths of the pandemic, 119, while another 112 people died Tuesday.Experts are bracing for the situation to further worsen in the coming weeks. The country’s vaccine supply got a slight boost with the recent arrival of another 1 million doses of China’s Sinopharm vaccine, but it’s still waiting on 20 million AstraZeneca doses already ordered from the Serum Institute of India. Without that order, mass vaccinations cannot begin.The surging cases and vaccine uncertainties pushed Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s government to double down. Restrictions began in phases Monday before all economic activity is halted in a stringent nationwide lockdown starting Thursday.In anticipation, thousands of people attempted to flee Dhaka since last weekend, crowding bus and ferry terminals while flouting public health measures like maintaining distance.A complete lockdown may be the only answer to slow the variant, which poses the biggest risk yet. The government is also trying to procure more vaccines, said scientist Alamgir.“If we can enforce the strict shutdown as planned, we will be able to avoid a disaster,” he added. “Let’s hope for the best.”———This version has corrected the initials in the scientist’s name.