Leaked UN Memo: COVID-19 Could Kill 2 Million in Bangladesh

Kamran Reza Chowdhury
200330-BD-covid-un-note-620.jpg Bangladesh firefighters spray disinfectant on a Dhaka street as a preventive measure against COVID-19, March 29, 2020.

A leaked United Nations memo has warned that up to 2 million people could die of the coronavirus disease in Bangladesh if the government does not take appropriate action to stem the virus in the densely populated country, according to a report from an investigative website.

The report published over the weekend by NetraNews, a Sweden-based non-profit news portal covering Bangladesh, came as health officials in the country confirmed only one new infection over the past three days amid criticism that the government had not made adequate preparations to combat the virus.

NetraNews quoted the World Health Organization’s country chief, Bardan Jung Rana, as saying that the memo –  titled “Country Preparedness and Response Plan” (CPRP V1) – was written jointly by U.N. agencies, including WHO, the Bangladesh government and development partners.

The memo, which appeared to be a draft, reportedly circulated last week among diplomats in Dhaka.

“Given the extraordinary human densities in Bangladesh, globally accepted modeling techniques and parameter assumptions forecast the impact of COVID-19 without interventions between half a million up to 2 million lives lost during the epidemic wave. These figures are not surprising when considered against modeling in other countries but they are astounding and should serve as a call to action,” the draft report stated.

“The challenges in Bangladesh are compounded by a weak health system and the risks of a complete saturation of the health system early in the epidemic, leaving patients in severe or critical condition from COVID or other conditions without adequate health care facilities throughout much of the epidemic.”

Contacted by BenarNews, U.N. and World Health Organization officials neither confirmed nor denied the report.

The United Nations office in Dhaka, without referring to NetraNews report, issued a statement on Saturday explaining the “Country Preparedness and Response Plan,” saying it is “a planning document prepared jointly by the United Nations in Bangladesh and concerned government counterparts with participation of a number of civil society partners and other actors.”

It said that “[t]he globally accepted modeling techniques guiding this document use an assumption of no interventions to stem to spread of the virus in order to portray the possible magnitude of the outbreak.”

The statement went on to praise Bangladesh’s government for rapidly instituting interventions including enforced quarantines and social distancing along with the closure of schools and public places.

“The United Nations is fully supportive of the measures the government of Bangladesh has been taking to slow the spread of COVID-19,” it said.

Bangladesh Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen said he had seen reporting about the leaked document.

“This is a total violation of the U.N. charter. According to its rule, the U.N. should have consulted the host government before finalizing any statement,” Momen told BenarNews.

“They can only circulate [the document] if the host government approves [it],” he said, adding, “They have not shared the document with us.”

A Bangladesh think tank leader said this was not the first leaked document.

“The U.N. memo was basically for internal communication and was not for public consumption,” said Munshi Faiz Ahmad, chairman of the Bangladesh Institute of International and Strategic Studies, a state-owned think tank. “I think, someone intentionally leaked the memo.

“The U.N. system must not authenticate the leaked memo. I also would not confirm if I was in their position because if they do so, they may face charges of violating rules,” he told BenarNews.

49 confirmed cases

Meanwhile, an official with the government-run Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR), reported on Monday that only one new COVID-19 case was confirmed over the weekend, increasing the nationwide total to 49. Five deaths have been recorded in Bangladesh, a country of more than 164 million people, since the first case was confirmed on March 8.

Dr. A.S.M. Alamgir, the principal scientific officer in charge of the institute’s medical entomology wing, said the findings were accurate. The institute is Bangladesh’s focal agency in its fight against COVID-19.

“We completely follow the protocol prescribed by the WHO and the Centers for Disease Control to select people to collect samples. We must not take samples haphazardly,” he told BenarNews. “If we do not get any positive results, should we give wrong and inflated figures?”

Speaking to reporters on Monday, IEDCR director Dr. Meerjady Sabrina Flora said hundreds of people were tested over the weekend – 53 on Friday, 109 on Saturday and 153 on Sunday.

Globally, nearly 37,000 people have died and at least 770,000 others have been infected, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

Bangladesh health officials have been conducting press briefings over Facebook Live for about a week. On Sunday, Health Minister Zahid Maleque told reporters that he was in precautionary quarantine after his personal officer tested positive for COVID-19.

Doctors question testing methods

Meanwhile, two hospital officials raised concerns about the lack of reported cases in Bangladesh.

“The figure given by the IEDCR is absolutely unacceptable. Will it be correct to conclude that a pond has 10 fish by netting 10 fish in a corner of the pond –  the IEDCR is doing such a practice,” Dr. M .H. Choudhury Lelin, chairman of the Health and Hope Hospital in Dhaka, told BenarNews.

He said the IEDCR announced it had collected samples from 1,338 people in 22 days, and 49 had tested positive for the coronavirus.

“The IEDCR is only collecting the blood samples from suspected patients who returned from abroad or came in contact with returnees. This approach is not correct,” he said.

Lelin cited the example of an old Dhaka man infected with COVID-19, who had not returned from abroad or been in contact with any returnees from oversees. The man alerted the IEDCR, but they turned him away, telling him that he had no coronavirus infection, Lelin alleged. He said the man later went to pray at a local mosque.

“As his condition deteriorated, he was admitted to a hospital, where he died,” Lelin said, adding that the institute only then collected a blood sample and determined that he was infected with the coronavirus.

“Every day we see people with coronavirus die in different parts of country. The local administrations have been sealing off the entire villages,” Lelin said. “But the IEDCR did not collect samples, what does this mean?”

He said efforts to hide results would allow COVID-19 to spread.

Dr. Kanak Kanti Barua, the vice chancellor of the Bangladesh’s only medical university, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University, offered a similar view.

“I personally think the number of COVID-19 patients in Bangladesh would be higher if we could test more people. The IEDCR should test more people to get the right picture of the situation,” he told BenarNews.

“The spread of COVID-19 is big health challenge for us. We should work with the U.N. and other stakeholders to confront the situation.”


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.