I attended a wedding last week, only to find that less than half the guests turned up, much to the distress of the hosts. Apparently it was dengue that kept the guests away. At least 12 families called in to say that one member or the other of their family had dengue. A physician present at the wedding said that 60 per cent of his patients over the past week had dengue.
One of our colleagues who lives in Mirpur, yesterday said that his neighbour’s child was taken to a private hospital and diagnosed with dengue. However, the hospital simply did not have a single vacant bed to accommodate the child. Almost all hospitals are similarly packed to full capacity.
Dengue is infective. If an Aedes mosquito bites a dengue patient and then bites another person, the latter can also contact the disease. That is why dengue patients should be kept under mosquito nets.
According to media reports, dengue has spread to all districts of the country. So this is now a national calamity. But the ministers, mayors and the health department officials have no idea how to control the spread of dengue and tackle the burgeoning number of patients in the hospitals.
In Philippines they put up a red alert when the number of dengue patients reached 100,000. No such declaration has been made in Bangladesh. In July alone, 14,996 dengue patients were admitted to hospital. In 2018, the highest had been 10,148. And dengue patients are on the increase outside of Dhaka too.
Many guardians have called for schools to be closed down early for the Eid holidays. On Thursday, 168 students of Dhaka University went for blood tests and 16 were diagnosed with dengue. Chhatra Union has demanded that the university be closed down as there is no one to look after the ailing patients. Most of our schools, colleges and coaching centres are in unhygienic places where stagnant water is not cleared away.
The people have misgivings as to how far the the ministers and mayors are effectively tackling the situation. But they have no shortage of rhetoric. They admonish journalists, even threatening to take action against their ‘conspiracies’.
On Thursday a journalist asked health minister Zahid Maleque how he went on a trip to Malaysia while dengue was spreading all over the country. He simply silenced the journalist, not bothering to reply. Earlier he had compared the increasing number of mosquitoes to the multiplying Rohingya population. At another event he said the situation was under control. “Every day 15 people die in accidents. Around 10 die of of snake bites every day. Yet over the past few months, only 8 died of dengue. Every day hundreds of people die of heart attacks. We don’t talk about that.”
It is hard to believe that a minister who is a representative of the people, can make such insensitive remarks while people are dying of dengue. Just because people die in road accidents, is it fine if they die of dengue? So why do we even need a health minister or health directorate?
While dengue spread like an epidemic, the health minister took a trip abroad, giving rise to strong criticism. He cut his trip short and return home, but postponed the scheduled press conference.
On Wednesday an advertisement appeared in the newspapers, stating that the health minister had called for the prevention of dengue. And billboards have been erected all over the city, at least 28 along Airport Road alone, detailing measures against dengue taken by the health ministry under directives of the health minister.
The Dhaka South City Corporation mayor has failed to eradicate mosquitoes but has no dearth of words. At a meeting with the owners of private TV channels on 24 July, he said, “Mosquitoes shouldn’t be made into a political issue. Like the child abduction rumours, it is now being said that 350,000 people have been infected by the dengue virus. Steps have to be taken along with the public to tackle these conspirators. The government is committed to stand by the dengue patients and give a stern reply.”
Prothom Alo and other media outlets revealed that the insecticide being used against mosquitoes is totally ineffective. The two mayors now say they are bringing in new insecticide, but have not revealed any details of what is being brought, how and when. Mayor Sayeed has said that by the first week of September, mosquitoes in his area will be under control. And Dhaka North mayor Atiqul Islam has said the insecticide will come soon, but he can’t say when.
While all this prevarication continues, dengue is on a steady rise. Official records say 14 people have died of dengue but Prothom Alo investigations reveal that 69 have died so far.
While people throng the hospitals, clinics and diagnostic centres for dengue tests, the required reagent is running out of stock. The retailers are taking advantage of this to hike up the price of the reagents.
Meanwhile, mayor Sayeed Khokan has come up with another strange statement. He said that 11 wards in his area were dengue free, that there were no Aedes mosquitoes in those areas. But Prothom Alo investigations reveal that this was incorrect and there were over 100 dengue patients in these areas.
The mayor seems to contend that the Aedes mosquitoes must have left the areas when the survey was made and then returned later. It’s a lot like the Nasiruddin Hodja story about counting crows in a city. The ministers and mayor may be able to admonish the journalists, but they can’t kill the mosquitoes.
* Sohrab Hassan is joint editor of Prothom Alo and a poet. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. This column appeared in the print edition of Prothom Alo and has been rewritten in English by Ayesha Kabir.