By: Sarwar Alam
Hundreds of thousands of people fled the Bangladesh capital on Thursday (15) in every available car, train and bus after authorities lifted a coronavirus lockdown despite soaring infections and deaths.
The government has allowed an eight-day respite after two weeks of lockdown which has seen troops patrolling the streets to keep people in their homes.
With the nation about to celebrate the Eid al-Adha Muslim festival, thousands of buses returned to highways, ferries left the capital for coastal ports and trains started rolling.
Traditionally, tens of millions of people in the Muslim majority country of 169 million people leave the major cities for the Eid al-Adha celebrations.
At Shimulia ferry station, some 70 kilometres (43 miles) from Dhaka, buses packed ferries and crowded the main riverfront, causing chaotic congestion.
Mohammad Sharif, an 18-year-old carpenter who lives in Dhaka, headed to his village to be with his parents.
“I am taking the first chance to get home. If the lockdown is imposed again after Eid, then I will stay at my village,” he told AFP before boarding a boat.
Police struggled to control crowds, according to Sirajul Islam, police chief at Louhojang, south of Dhaka.
“There is intense passenger pressure on the ferries,” he said. “We have taken stern steps so that the ferries don’t take too many passengers against health rules.”
Authorities said they eased restrictions to help the economy. More than 10 million cows and goats — worth billions of dollars — are slaughtered for Eid.
Bus drivers and boat operators said they were happy to be making money again.
“We have been the victims of this virus for 15 months. The impact it has on our families is unbearable,” said bus driver Abdul Kader.
“At least 300 buses have left Gabtoli bus terminal for northern Bangladesh districts since this morning. People are leaving the city en masse,” Rakib Hasan Johny, a manager of the Hanif bus service, told AFP.
Virus experts warned the government against lifting the lockdown, saying it might cause an even faster spread of the Delta variant that has swept the country since late May.
In recent days, daily infections have soared above 12,000, more than double the figures for last month. Deaths have hit a record 230 a day. Experts say the real toll is much higher than the government estimate.
Bangladesh has so far recorded more than 17,000 deaths and one million infections.