Bangladesh reported 201 COVID-19 deaths on Wednesday, the highest single-day toll since the pandemic started in March last year.
It was for the first time that the death toll had crossed the 200-mark in a 24-hour cycle in the South Asian nation of some 165 million people, taking the total death count to 15,593.
The previous single-day high of 164 deaths was recorded on Monday. The first week of July saw 1,090 deaths, which is also the highest in any week during the pandemic in the country.
A total of 11,162 people were also diagnosed with the disease in the past 24 hours, taking the total tally to 9,77,568, officials said on Wednesday.
With coronavirus cases and deaths hitting new records, Bangladesh extended on Monday a strict nationwide lockdown by another week.
The Delta variant of the coronavirus, first identified in neighbouring India, is behind the surge in infections in Bangladesh, overwhelming its healthcare system and raising fears of a medical oxygen crisis.
The variant hit Bangladesh’s border regions in the northern and southwestern regions last month and is now spreading fast in urban and rural areas across the country.
Most active variant
Tahmina Shirin, director of capital Dhaka-based Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR) told Al Jazeera that they found the Delta variant in 78 percent of the total samples they sequenced in the past month.
The IEDCR first detected the Delta variant in Bangladesh on May 8. In the next month, they found that the variant already had community transmission in the country.
While the bordering districts with India, including Dinajpur, Chapainawabganj, Pirojpur, Khulna and Satkhira first witnessed the proliferation of the Delta variant, it has now started dominating the transmission in Dhaka, as well, said Shirin.
“We believe the strict lockdown has helped to slow down the spreading of Delta variant but it has not been able to stop it completely,” she said.
Shirin said people who had taken two vaccine shots against the coronavirus were also found to be infected with the Delta variant.
“Still our best chance against fighting this variant is to get fully vaccinated,” she said.
Only 3 percent of Bangladesh’s population has received both doses of the vaccine.
After a promising start earlier this year, the country’s inoculation programme took a hit after India, faced with a deadly second wave of the virus, stopped exporting AstraZeneca shots.
The vaccination programme, however, has been rejuvenated during the weekend after Bangladesh received 2.5 million doses of the Moderna vaccine from the United States and two million doses of the Sinopharm vaccine from China.
Experts concerned as festivities begin
Experts, meanwhile, are concerned and fear the worst in the coming days as two potential “super-spreader” events – the famous cow market and Eid al-Adha – are around the corner.
Before the Muslim festival every year, a number of makeshift camps crop up mainly in Dhaka and the port city of Chattogram where cattle traders from across the country sell the sacrificial animal. Millions attend these markets.
The two largest cities also witness an exodus of millions of people taking trains, buses, ferries and private vehicles to reach the countryside to celebrate the festival with their families.
Bangladeshi infectious disease expert Be-Nazir Ahmed told Al Jazeera that the government should extend the strict lockdown, which ends on July 14, until Eid al-Adha.
“The government should also stop cattle traders from coming to the capital from the countryside, especially from the bordering districts with India in where COVID infections are at its prime,” he said.
Ahmed said that if lockdown is relaxed and people are allowed to move around, the country may witness “a major COVID explosion” after the Eid al-Adha festival.
“The number will be huge. We will face a situation like India faced just months ago,” said Ahmed, a former director of disease control at Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Health Service (DGHS).
DGHS spokesman Nazmul Islam said the government’s policymakers are aware the situation is likely to worsen if the lockdown is relaxed before the Muslim festival.
“If the current trend of cases continues, then the strict lockdown might be extended,” he said.
Islam said the government is currently focusing on raising the number of hospital beds and ensuring adequate manpower in COVID-19 hospitals.
“Besides, we are also scrutinising the need for setting up of field hospitals, especially outside of Dhaka,” he said.