Bangladesh Faces Serious Shortage of ICU Beds amid Huge COVID-19 Spike

Ahammad Foyez
Bangladesh Faces Serious Shortage of ICU Beds amid Huge COVID-19 Spike Niaz Uddin Hawladar (center), a seriously ill COVID-19 patient, is helped out of a vehicle outside Dhaka Medical College, April 12, 2021.
[Sabrina Yesmin/BenarNews]

Seriously ill COVID-19 patients in Bangladesh are being turned away from hospitals due to an acute shortage of Intensive Care Unit beds amid spiraling infections, a local health expert told BenarNews on Monday, blaming the government for not acting rapidly in installing these facilities.

A government official, meanwhile, acknowledged to BenarNews that the administration had been unprepared for the 18-fold increase in new cases in the past two months. 

To control the worsening pandemic, Bangladesh on Monday ordered the shutdown of all offices, banks, and domestic and international transport for eight days starting Wednesday, authorities said.

“There is a huge shortage of ICU beds as our health service did not give the necessary attention to the matter. As a result, most districts are still out of ICU coverage,” virologist Dr. Nazrul Islam, who is a member of a national committee on COVID-19, told BenarNews.

Worse, hospitals had removed some makeshift ICU facilities that were installed during the first wave of the virus last May, he said. 

“The authorities concerned removed the temporary ICU facilities thinking there was no possibility of a second wave of infections. Now, they have started working to reinstall these facilities,” Islam said.

Data released by the Directorate General of Health Services on April 11 showed a total of 672 ICU beds nationwide designated for COVID-19 patients, with only 295 of those located outside of Dhaka.

However, of the 142 ICU beds listed as available, only seven were in Dhaka, the data showed.

Meanwhile, the country logged 7,201 new COVID-19 infections on Monday – compared to 401 on Feb. 12 – and the highest ever number of daily virus-related deaths at 83.  The cumulative caseload rose to 691,957 since March 8, 2020, with pandemic deaths rising to 9,822.

“The demands for ICU beds increased as the number of patients increased compared with last year,” Dr. A. S. M. Alamgir, principal scientific officer at the Institute of Epidemiology Disease Control and Research, told BenarNews.

Islam said one explanation for the steep increase in infections was the presence of the so-called South African variant of the coronavirus, which is more infectious than earlier variants. Another reason for the rise, he said, is the dangerous backsliding in the use of protective masks and social distancing.

‘Could not get ICU bed in time’

The shortage of ICU beds has sent desperate families rushing from one facility to another in search of acute care for suffering loved ones.

Take the case of 28-year-old Dhaka woman Ishrat Jahan. She had medical conditions that put her at high risk if she contracted COVID-19. She got very sick when infected, Ishrat’s brother-in-law Abdul Mannan told BenarNews.

Her family ran from pillar to post for days to find a hospital where she could be placed in intensive care, and after three days found one with an ICU opening.

“Even before the COVID-19 test report came, physicians figured out that Ishrat needed an ICU bed and asked us to manage it as no ICU bed was vacant in the hospital [where she was tested],” Mannan said.

“We tried everything, but we found no hospital had a vacant ICU bed, until on April 9 evening one bed came free. We booked that bed for her at about 4:30 p.m. and Ishrat died at about 4:45 pm.”

Technology professional Muhammad Abdus Salam Khan died of COVID-19 on Monday, according to a social media post by his son Muhammad Anwarus Salam.

“My father died today as he could not get an ICU bed in time …!” the son wrote on Facebook.

Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina had last June directed that ICU beds be set up in every district of Bangladesh. Two donor-funded programs began to achieve this objective.

The number of ICU beds in the country has since increased by 200, and a new hospital with another 200 ICU beds is expected to be inaugurated in a week in Dhaka, DGHS Director (Hospital) Dr. Md. Farid Hossain Miah said.

“The work of installing ICUs at district-level hospitals funded by the World Bank and Asian Development Bank is still underway,” Miah told BenarNews.

Authorities had expected a second wave of infections in Bangladesh’s winter, November to February. “But we did not imagine that it would come at such a time,” Miah said, adding that health authorities had also not anticipated such a massive rise new COVID-19 infections.

Khaleda Zia infected

The government on Monday announced a fresh lockdown from April 14 to April 21 midnight. An earlier weeklong lockdown, which ended on Sunday, was met with sometimes violent protests, in the run-up to Ramadan that is set to begin this week.

However, Health Rights Movement Bangladesh’s head Rashid-e-Mahbub said an eight-day lockdown was not enough. The country needs a lockdown of at least two weeks, he said.

“The situation is still not out of our control, and light restrictions would lead to us failing to control the situation,” said the public health expert.

Separately, former Prime Minister and Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) Chairperson Khaleda Zia tested positive for COVID-19 on Saturday night.

Zia, who is on a conditional release from jail, had no serious symptoms and was being treated at home, the party’s Secretary General Mirza Fakhrul Islam Alamgir said at a press conference on Sunday.

The three-time PM has been staying at her residence since she was released from prison by the government on March 25, 2020, right after the outbreak of the pandemic.

Zia was sentenced to 17 years in prison after being convicted for corruption in 2018.


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