Kamran Reza Chowdhury: Bangladeshi authorities have arrested at least a dozen people suspected of spreading “false rumors” about the coronavirus pandemic, Human Rights Watch said Wednesday in calling on the government to stop targeting doctors and others who have raised concerns about its handling of the outbreak.
Meanwhile, health authorities in the nation of 165 million people are testing for COVID-19 at an alarmingly low rate compared with many other countries, according to a local news report that cited testing data from the state-run Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research (IEDCR).
“While the government has a responsibility to prevent the spread of misinformation about COVID-19, this doesn’t mean silencing those with genuine concerns or criticism of the government’s handling of the crisis,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).
“The government should stop abusing free speech and start building trust by ensuring that people are properly informed about plans for prevention, containment, and cure as it battles the virus,” he said in a statement.
Habibur Rahman, a health ministry spokesman, told reporters on Wednesday that the nation’s confirmed coronavirus cases rose to 54 with three new infections. He said another person had died of COVID-19, taking the death toll to six.
Globally, more than 46,000 people have died and almost 922,000 others have been infected, according to the latest data compiled by disease experts at Johns Hopkins University (JHU) in the United States. Bangladesh’s reported number of infections was among the lowest in more than 200 countries and territories tracked by JHU.
HRW said two teachers at a government college had allegedly been suspended after posting comments about the virus on social media. It said a researcher was under investigation for publishing a paper, which projected that over 89 million people in Bangladesh could get symptomatic infections and that 507,442 could die by May 28 from the coronavirus.
NetraNews, a Sweden-based nonprofit news portal that reported the coronavirus projections, has been blocked in Bangladesh since December last year, the rights watchdog said.
Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan Kamal rejected the statement from Human Rights Watch. He said the government was engaged in fighting coronavirus and not aiming to suppress free speech.
“Yes, our law enforcers have arrested some people who spread misinformation and rumor about the COVID-19 infection in Bangladesh. They have committed offenses according to the law of the land,” Khan told BenarNews. “Would any government of any country leave the offenders alone for violating laws?”
“Those who had circulated misinformation and rumors are simply offenders and law breakers, no matter what professions they belong to,” the minister said.
Ex-health minister slams low COVID-19 tests
A.F.M. Ruhal Haque, a former health minister, criticized the government’s low testing of suspected coronavirus cases, describing it as unacceptable.
“We have a population of more than 160 million. Hundreds of thousands of people have returned from the countries with a heavy burden of COVID-19. But the IEDCR is conducting tests of 140 or 150 samples per day,” Haque, a physician, told BenarNews.
“The real problem of COVID-19 is that more than 60 percent of the bearers would not have any symptoms. But they will spread the virus to other people,” he said.
Quoting IEDCR data, the Dhaka Tribune said that only one suspected case was being tested for every 100,000 people in Bangladesh.
“While Bangladesh tests 10 samples per million population, many countries are testing hundreds of [COVID-19] samples per million population, some thousands, and some even 10,000 per million,” the newspaper said.
Health officials earlier said that the IEDCR and other agencies had tested about 1,759 suspected cases.
Meerjady Sabrina Flora, the IEDCR director, rejected the criticisms, saying her office had expanded testing.
“We follow the WHO protocols in selecting patients [for COVID-19 testing],” Flora told BenarNews, referring to the U.N.’s World Health Organization. “We should not assume that a person with fever, cough and respiratory problems is a COVID-19 patient.”