Saturday, May 8, 2021
Home CORONAVIRUS Lockdown in Dhaka: where social distancing is an illusion

Lockdown in Dhaka: where social distancing is an illusion

A deceptive calm has fallen over Dhaka. In this densely populated city of 21 million, the main roads are empty, the sounds of horns have disappeared and the polluted sky has cleared. But social distancing within our neighbourhoods is an illusion. We are all packed into the same bazaars and homes.

A masked man sells disinfectant and personal protective equipment on the street

Shoppers at an open-air market

A barber at the roadside shaves a worker beneath a parasol

Bangladesh began its lockdown on 26 March, on independence day, when many people were outside Dhaka to celebrate with family in their villages. The first few days were quiet as we all tried to stop the spread of Covid-19.

A nearly deserted thoroughfare cutting through the middle of Dhaka

Even the rickshaw drivers vacated the streets. But after a week they had to return to work. They have been busy, replacing cars and buses to transport people around their neighbourhoods. Day labourers remain outside, looking for work so they can feed their families. Many of them came to Dhaka from the countryside and have to send money to their villages. They cannot afford to stay at home during this lockdown.

A masked man pushes an overladen rickshaw along a wide but quiet street in Dhaka

A masked refuse collector empties a rubbish cart

A masked man pushes a waste-laden rickshaw long a street

A man pushes a waste-laden rickshaw along a street

When I travel the city by bicycle or in autorickshaws, which are reserved for emergency services and journalists, I see the poorest people having to continue their daily lives; meanwhile the wealthy are comfortable, and office workers are able to stay at home and survive on their savings.

A woman in wheelchair begs in the street

I live in Mirpur, an area in northern Dhaka, which is full of low and middle-income families. People wait on the sides of the roads. I ask them why, and they say they are just waiting for someone to help them. The government has offered some support, but cannot reach everyone, so many rely on the goodwill of other residents and groups.

A long queue of shoppers before a mobile truck shop

A woman walks away from a food-relief truck with a sack of produce

Mirpur is home to many of Dhaka’s garment factories, which have begun reopening. The workers walk long distances to get to the factories, or crowd on to trucks because no safe transport has been provided.

As they leave the factories, workers tell me not much has changed apart from more hand-washing routines and some precautions, but it is hard to keep physical distance when there are thousands of workers in the factories.

Garment workers pour on to the street in Mirpur at the close of the day.

I keep my distance when I talk to them, worried about infecting myself and others while I take my photos. I am used to being close to everyone, physically, and through the connections I make with my subjects. Now I view my city through a telephoto lens. I miss capturing the detail in people’s faces. Everyone is wearing masks; only their eyes are visible but without expression.

A man in a white protective suit guards a closed-off alleyway

The first few cases of the virus were reported in early March; at the time of writing, the death toll in Bangladesh stands at 582, with 42,844 infected.

A woman with suspected coronavirus gives her data to a health worker in a white protective suit at a collection point

Health workers in white protective suits collect coronavirus samples at a local hospital in Dhaka

City corporation workers spray disinfectant on the hospital and nearby roads.

Masked health workers in white protective suits in the street

Three images: first, Shah Ali Baghdadi holy site, usually a refuge for many homeless, is closed for the lockdown. Second, long-distance buses stand idle at Gabtoli bus terminal in Dhaka. All transportation has ceased in the country. Third, police stop vehicles at checkpoints in an effort to restrict movement.

Three images: first, the market that sells construction materials in Gabtoli is closed for lockdown. Second, rickshaw drivers wait for passengers in Mirpur. Third, a deserted marketplace.

A friend lost his father to the coronavirus last week and now he, his wife and his three-year-old child are infected. Every time I return home from a trip outside, I cannot help but panic over the following few days, worried about whether I have been infected or am spreading the virus. Everyone in this city is worried. Even people living on the street wear some kind of mask.

A keymaker on the pavement touts for business in an empty street

A white protective suit is among the laundry hanging from the veranda of an apartment belonging to a neighbour of the photographer

Several young people pass time on a city-block rooftop.

One of the estimated one million drivers of Dhaka cycles with a masked passenger.

The government has announced that from 31 May there will be a limited easing of the lockdown, though it is far from certain that Covid-19 is under control.

Nevertheless, this pandemic has given us the time to look at ourselves and decide what is important. It allows us to reflect upon what kind of civilisation we have made and what we have done to nature. We cannot live well in isolation – the world is connected as never before. Our priority should be to live by helping others and to fight together against the crises we face, whether this pandemic or climate change.

Several masked rickshaw drivers cycle along a tree-lined avenue in Dhaka


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