On June 27th, thousands of migrant workers fled Dhaka, Bangladesh over upcoming COVID-19 restrictions. Bangladesh has imposed restrictions on movement and activities since the middle of April, but recently, the government released novel guidelines that would severely limit movement within the country. These new policies attempt to contain a new wave of cases linked to the extremely contagious Delta variant. On June 25th, the country reported 5,869 new cases and 108 deaths, and many new COVID-19 infections likely went unreported. Previously, Bangladesh imposed lockdown restrictions on Dhaka’s neighboring districts, but new cases have increasingly overwhelmed hospitals. These strict restrictions will gradually intensify. Once fully implemented, the government will force Bangladeshi residents to stay in their homes by law, with only emergency services and export-oriented factories allowed to remain in operation. Since migrant workers won’t be able to gain income under these restrictions, thousands have opted to leave the city and return to their home villages.
According to BBC South Asia editor Jill McGivering, the lockdown protocols will hit day labourers and low-income employees the hardest since they won’t be able to pay rent. Consequently, thousands of workers crowded local transportation infrastructure on Sunday. Zakir Hossain, the local traffic police commissioner, told reporters that “no one” fleeing the city “is following Covid-19 safety protocols.” More than 50 thousand people attempted to leave the city by ferry. Police sub-inspector Mohammad Raza stated that the city doesn’t “want [people] to overcrowd the ferry, but they don’t listen. There is a mad rush of people.”
In the wake of India’s April COVID-19 spike, these set of lockdown restrictions are essential to controlling another public health disaster in South Asia. Although these policies will put a standstill on Bangladesh’s economic output, saving human lives should take priority over freezing the economy. However, the government should have warned Dhaka residents earlier of the incoming restrictions, or the government should have better-regulated immigration out of the city. Since migrant workers leaving the city aren’t following COVID-19 guidelines nor are they social distancing, the government should have adopted safer measures to allow workers to leave. Potentially compounding this crisis, many migrant workers will likely contract and spread the virus across the countryside because of these poor conditions. Moreover, thousands of people’s livelihoods will be disrupted by this lockdown.
Beyond domestic governance, the international community holds some responsibility for the impending third wave of COVID-19 cases in Bangladesh. Wealthy governments originally hoarded personal protective equipment and ventilators by restricting exports to less wealthy countries. Although the West is now committing vaccine doses to struggling countries, these donations are coming too late. By restricting COVID supplies, developed countries inadvertently worsened pandemics in the Global South, and these wealthy countries helped propagate environments where new variants could mutate. To ameliorate the consequences of this harmful behavior, Western states should eliminate the remnants of their export restrictions and increase PPE donations. Further, Western governments should commit more vaccine doses and ensure these doses are administered sooner. In particular, wealthy governments like the United States and China should send in more personal protective equipment and ventilators for hospitals in Bangladesh as they fight an impending surge of COVID-19 cases.
Moving forward, current conditions in Bangladesh represent an international tragedy of the commons. Although Western states have managed their COVID-19 outbreaks with vaccinations and remote work, rich countries have deprived the Global South of the resources necessary to combat their own pandemics. As exemplified in Bangladesh, novel variants will appear and infect thousands across the globe if the international community doesn’t properly manage its public health resources. Moreover, Bangladesh exemplifies that the pandemic isn’t over, especially for migrant workers and essential employees, because the world has poorly managed COVID-19. New variants pose a threat to unvaccinated populations, and new strains could infect vaccinated people. As a result, countries must continue to impose COVID restrictions and aid developing countries to avoid future humanitarian crises like in Dhaka.