The government's efforts to protect the proverbial heart of the country, its capital, from a worsening Covid-19 situation could be foiled by the influx of people from riskier districts to cattle markets in the lead-up to Eid-ul-Azha.
Experts fear that Dhaka, currently in a better position than other districts in terms of infections and deaths, may see a rise in Covid cases surrounding the religious festival.
"Dhaka has been reaping the benefit of neighbouring districts being locked down, but the mass gathering at cattle markets will have a negative impact on us," said renowned virologist Prof Dr Nazrul Islam, former vice-chancellor of Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University.
Meanwhile, the government announced, through a statement of the Press Information Department last night, that there will be a countrywide seven-day "strict" lockdown from Monday. However, how that will impact on the influx due to the cattle markets is as yet unclear.
Director General of the Directorate General of Health Services Prof Dr Khurshid Alam said the situation may go out of control if the number of Covid patients increases as doctors, nurses and health staffers are already exhausted.
"Our doctors and nurses have been relentlessly providing services to Covid patients. They are completely burned out. We'll not be able to provide services if the infection spreads," he said,
While health experts are raising the red flag, the top brass of government organisations concerned are keeping faith in asking people to follow health guidelines, the efficacy of which is not clearly evident based on past experiences.
According to the Department of Livestock Services (DLS), a total of 1.19 crore sacrificial cattle are prepared for slaughter for Eid. Last year, over 1.1 crore was slaughtered across the country.
Although the online cattle market has become popular lately, most of the animals are sold at temporary and permanent cattle markets. This year, 23 such markets will be set up in Dhaka.
DLS Deputy Director (Farm) Zeenat Sultana said over 50 percent of cattle found at Dhaka's cattle markets comes from other districts.
"A good number of cattle comes to Dhaka from Rangpur and Rajshahi divisions," she said.
A significant number also comes from Kushtia, Meherpur, Chuadanga and Jhenidah of Khulna division.
An analysis of data three weeks prior to last year's Eid-ul-Azha and the corresponding period this year paints a grim picture of infection in the north and north-eastern divisions -- great sources for cattle.
On July 10, 2020, Dhaka had an infection rate of 25 percent while the infection rate was 34 percent in Khulna, 28 percent in Rajshahi and 24 percent in Rangpur.
Since the pandemic hit the country in March 2020, Dhaka had been the worst-affected division. But that scenario changed since the Delta variant, first found in India, was detected in Bangladesh.
DGHS statistics show the infection rate on June 24 this year was 78 percent in Rangpur, 22 percent in Rajshahi and 78 percent in Khulna divisions. The infection rate was 27 percent in Dhaka on the day.
This month, Covid-19 deaths of the seven other divisions combined was around four times that of Dhaka's.
On June 24, 68 of the 81 Covid deaths recorded were in divisions other than Dhaka, according to the DGHS.
Experts predict there will be mobilisation of at least one crore people over the purchase of cattle.
Like the previous year, they are afraid people will not follow health guidelines properly at cattle markets this year when the Delta variant of Covid-19 is rattling the country.
"The top level of the government assumes its duty is done by declaring restrictions. It had not given importance to people's participation in following health guidelines. As a result, people do not comply with their directives," said Prof Nazrul, adding that similar things will happen in the cattle market.
"We needed to create awareness among the people through community programmes at field level so both traders and buyers who will flock to the cattle markets would follow it," he said.
MEASURES BEING TAKEN
DLS Director General Sheikh Azizur Rahman said, "We've given a proposal to transport cattle on wagon trains if the lockdown is continued."
They will discuss it at the inter-ministerial meeting that will be held on June 27, he said.
Dhaka North City Corporation Mayor Atiqul Islam said there will be one-way passage for customers at the cattle market.
Pointing out higher infection rates in Rajshahi, Satkhira and Khulna, he said, "We will write to the Department of Livestock to stop the entrance of cattle from highly infected districts to Dhaka."
Dhaka South Mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh said there is an unwillingness among people to wear masks.
"We maintained health guidelines in cattle markets last year and will ensure it this time also," he said.