A traveler’s adventures in Covid testing
During a recent round-trip from Atlanta, US to Dhaka, Bangladesh, I had wildly contrasting experiences in the two cities as I tried to get tested for Covid-19.
This should come as no surprise.
To begin with, Atlanta, my adopted home, and Dhaka, my childhood love, are a study in contrasts. The former is an affluent developed city in one of the wealthiest countries in the world. While Atlanta has its share of urban problems, it is on the whole a smoothly functioning first-world city, to the extent possible in a world warped by a global pandemic.
The latter, the beloved city where I grew up, is something else. Dhaka, alas, has fulfilled the most pessimistic prognostications of development planners. Like other unwieldy "Third World" cities such as Manila and Mexico City, it's now an out-of-control megalopolis that's teetering on the brink with a mammoth population it struggles to serve. During my annual visits here, I wistfully reminisce about the charming city of my youth many decades ago, which I used to crisscross on a bike with carefree abandon. Now, its continuously clogged streets, overrun pavements, towering multi-storied behemoths clouding the horizon everywhere remind me of a scene out of The Blade Runner, a dystopian futuristic sci-fi movie set in a massive, decaying megalopolis where high-tech glitz and public squalor live cheek-by-jowl in a city that's falling apart.
Given how different the two cities are, it shouldn't come as a surprise that the Covid-19 testing experience was also quite different. In one city I experienced a publicly-run, reasonably priced, hi-tech operation where the testing and reporting were seamless, while in the other city it was a nightmare. Clinics could not guarantee results in time, leaving travellers to sweat it out in suspense as they waited at the departure lounge, desperately hoping they would get a negative test result notification by email in time.
Here's the twist in the tale: The seamless Covid-19 testing experience was in Dhaka, and the nightmarish experience was in Atlanta.
A few days before leaving Atlanta for Dhaka in early January, my airline notified me that Bangladesh and Turkey required a negative Covid-19 PCR test result prior to boarding the flight.
The tough part was that I could not test earlier than 72 hours prior to my departure. I called around and searched the Internet in vain. No clinic could guarantee a test result within 72 hours. One clinic suggested I come in early in the morning and leave a sample and hope for the best!
I had no choice. I went ahead and did just that. Sure enough, I ended up at the airport departure lounge without a test result. I was a nervous wreck. I managed to board my flight just in time, but saw the airline refuse to allow two passengers to board because they could not present a test result.
My experience in Dhaka was quite different. I learned that there were several reputable establishments offering reliable, timely results. What surprised me was that one of the best was the one run by the government health ministry in association with Bangladesh Army.
I discovered a well-organised, tech-savvy streamlined system at the huge facility in Mohakhali. Competent employees screened attendees swiftly and expertly. My cell number was used as a reference. My application information was carefully double-checked with my passport. Lines were long, but moved at a steady pace. Finally, a health worker, fully protected, took my nasal swab. I got a receipt, and was told I would get a report in 48 hours.
After that, all I had to do was to check the website. In order to protect my privacy, I had to get a one-time password on my cell phone every time I accessed the website. In due time, I had access to a downloadable, official negative Covid-19 PCR test report. My report was cross-checked at a separate airport health kiosk to verify its authenticity.
What I liked most about the Covid-19 testing in Bangladesh is that it is public service at its best—you didn't have to be a big shot or have connections to access this. This is a critical service open to any member of the general public who was traveling abroad.
The broad lessons are clear. The obsessive celebration of markets by free-market ayatollahs obscures the fact that some critical tasks may be best performed in the public domain. And yes, I do think Atlanta can learn a lesson or two from Dhaka here. Bangladesh was wracked by scandals over fake Covid testing. It's come a long way since then, and full credit to the government for addressing and resolving the issue (although things seem to have improved somewhat in Atlanta after my return—Covid-19 PCR tests with guaranteed results are offered for USD 140 at some places now).
In fact, the whole coronavirus pandemic is an abject lesson on how vital public health services—and public trust in them—are. The US is second to none in scientific talent or wealth, yet the horrendous, continuous toll taken by Covid-19 breaks my heart. The new federal administration, thank goodness, realises the vital importance of public policy and initiative.
In Bangladesh, while I cheer the smart government initiative for Covid-19 testing, I am aware that this is far more an exception than the rule. Still, it's a positive, heartening development, and it is my hope that the enormous public goodwill generated by a well-run government programme will be an impetus to replicate such excellence in other spheres of government.
Ashfaque Swapan, an Atlanta-based writer and editor, is contributing editor for Siliconeer, an online South Asian publication.