Thousands stranded in Bangladesh ahead of sweeping Covid lockdown

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Thousands of people were stranded in Bangladesh's capital on Monday as authorities halted almost all public transport ahead of a sweeping lockdown imposed to combat a deadly resurgence of Covid-19 infections.

The South Asian nation reported pandemic highs of more than 8,300 fresh infections on Monday and 119 deaths on Sunday.

Officials blame the recent spike on the highly contagious Delta variant first identified in neighbouring India.

The majority of the South Asian nation's 168 million population will be confined to their homes by Thursday as part of the restrictions, with only essential services and some export-facing factories allowed to operate.

The government's cabinet secretary Khandker Anwarul Islam said troops would be deployed from Thursday to help enforce the lockdown.

"The armed forces will be on patrol. If anyone ignores their orders, legal action will be available to them," he told reporters late Monday.

The lockdown announcement sparked an exodus of migrant workers from the capital Dhaka to home villages on Sunday, with tens of thousands cramming into ferries to cross a major river.

The staggered implementation of the lockdown rules left thousands of workers in Dhaka forced to walk to their offices on Monday, sometimes for hours, in the sweltering summer heat.

Large columns of people were seen walking on the main roads early Monday. Workplaces will be shut from Wednesday.

Bicycle rickshaws were allowed to operate in a last-minute government concession late Sunday, but prices soared to unaffordable levels, commuters said.

"I started walking at 7 am. I could not get any bus or any other vehicles. I can't afford a rickshaw ride," Shefali Begum, 60, who was going to her daughter's home in central Dhaka, told AFP.

Restrictions on activities and movement were imposed across Bangladesh in mid-April as cases and deaths jumped to their highest levels since the start of the pandemic.

Infections declined in May but started to rise again this month, sparking the harsher restrictions.

The country has reported nearly 900,000 infections and just over 14,000 virus deaths, but experts say the actual toll could be much higher due to possible underreporting.

Health officials across the world have been alarmed by the rapid spread of the Delta variant, now reported by the WHO to have reached at least 85 countries.

More than two-thirds of new virus cases in Bangladesh's capital were of the Delta variant, a recent study by the independent Dhaka-based International Centre for Diarrhoeal Disease Research reported.

"The rapid surge of the coronavirus cases in the country is due mostly to the Delta variant," health services department spokesman Robed Amind told AFP.

He said studies outside of Dhaka have also shown the spread of the variant in border districts and the second-largest city Chittagong.

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