Mass exodus in Dhaka as virus lockdown lifted for festival

SHIMULIA, Bangladesh: Hundreds of thousands of people fled the Bangladesh capital on Thursday in every available car, train and bus after authorities lifted a coronavirus lockdown despite soaring infections and deaths.

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The government has allowed an eight-day respite after two weeks of lockdown which has seen troops patrolling the streets to keep people in their homes.

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With the nation about to celebrate the Eid Al Adha festival, thousands of buses returned to highways, ferries left the capital for coastal ports and trains started rolling.

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Traditionally, tens of millions of people in the Muslim majority country of 169 million people leave the major cities for the Eid Al Adha celebrations.

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At Shimulia ferry station, some 70km from Dhaka, buses packed ferries and crowded the main riverfront, causing chaotic congestion.

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Mohammad Sharif, an 18-year-old carpenter who lives in Dhaka, headed to his village to be with his parents.

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“I am taking the first chance to get home. If the lockdown is imposed again after Eid, then I will stay at my village,” he told AFP before boarding a boat.

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Police struggled to control crowds, according to Sirajul Islam, police chief at Louhojang, south of Dhaka.

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“There is intense passenger pressure on the ferries,” he said. “We have taken stern steps so that the ferries don’t take too many passengers against health rules.”

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Authorities said they eased restrictions to help the economy. More than 10 million cows and goats – worth billions of dollars – are slaughtered for Eid.

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Bus drivers and boat operators said they were happy to be making money again.

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“We have been the victims of this virus for 15 months. The impact it has on our families is unbearable,” said bus driver Abdul Kader.

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“At least 300 buses have left Gabtoli bus terminal for northern Bangladesh districts since this morning. People are leaving the city en masse,” Rakib Hasan Johny, a manager of the Hanif bus service, told AFP.

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Virus experts warned the government against lifting the lockdown, saying it might cause an even faster spread of the Delta variant that has swept the country since late May.

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In recent days, daily infections have soared above 12,000, more than double the figures for last month. Deaths have hit a record 230 a day. Experts say the real toll is much higher than the government estimate.

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Bangladesh has so far recorded more than 17,000 deaths and one million infections.

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