Bangladesh cricket fans haven't had much to cheer about since 2019, with the team seemingly caught in some sort of unstoppable backward slide now, that no one involved in the game in an official capacity - players, selectors, administrators, others - looks ready to arrest.

But all that would be the men's team, superstar Shakib Al Hasan and co. Unbeknownst to most people, the other national cricket team, I.e. the Women's, has been notable for the giant strides it has made over a period of roughly 3-4 years, with the advent of a generation of women athletes who dream, and aspire to compete at the highest levels in international sport. For the women cricketers, a serious initiative to produce competitive teams on a regular basis was only undertaken in 2018, with the aim of qualifying for the ICC's own 50-over Women's World Cup in 2022.

The Tigresses' determination to succeed in the qualifying competition for that World Cup is what took them to Zimbabwe almost a month before the country would be hosting the qualifiers, a 10-team competition from November 21 to December 5 that would see three teams book their places in the finals. Almost all routes to Zimbabwe from Bangladesh go through South Africa. To be fair, in October most people had literally no inkling that the next Coronavirus variant of concern (VOC as opposed to VOI, of merely interest) might be brewing in southern Africa, a part of the continent mostly dominated by South Africa. And it was there that scientists first raised the alarm in mid-November, that a new variant of the virus had possibly taken hold. It took another 8-10 days for data collection and a folder to be presented by South African representations to the WHO for its perusal, on November 24. Within 48 hours, the world had a new VOC: it was christened Omicron.

The knee-jerk reactions to the discovery of Omicron set chaos in motion globally. The qualifying competition too appeared under threat. The Bangladeshi women, making use of their month-long stay and preparation in the host country - which included a three-match series against them, won 3-0 by the Bengal Tigresses - had started the competition in brilliant fashion, with superb wins against Pakistan (in a thriller) and the USA (at a canter), vaulting to the top of the table in their group. Three teams from each group would qualify for a Super Six round, where the top 3 at the end would go on to the finals.

Yet calls were growing for the competition to be scrapped with cases surging in the region's 5 countries. This threatened to undo all of the hard work and progress made by our women cricketers, playing at their best now too. But the day after WHO's announcement, the ICC's hand was indeed forced and on November 27, it decided it had no option but to call off the qualifiers.

The good news: the ICC still would be sending three teams from the qualifying competition to the World Cup, and as leaders of group B when competition was halted, Bangladesh would be one of them. The hard work of Rumana Ahmed and her team would not go to waste.

And the bad news: Having been present in the region as community transmission of the new variant was taking off, sure enough, this new, highly transmissible (even more, and probably much more than Delta, from the evidence so far) variant did indeed arrive in Bangladesh with its women's cricket team, as two of its members were confirmed as the first known cases of infection by the Omicron variant in the country this week.

Now can we handle it?

Omicron, the new Coronavirus variant having a very high number of mutations that allow it to escape both vaccine-induced and natural immunity, may turn deadly in Bangladesh although it now seems to be less lethal in many countries, warn experts.

As the highly transmissible new variant is spreading fast in different countries, including India, they said emergency preparedness should be in place to tackle Omicron.

Prof Nazrul Islam, ex VC of BSMMU, Dr AM, Zakir Hossain, former director of IEDCR, Prof Dr Bijon Kumar Sil, head of Gono Bishwabidyalay's Microbiology department and Prof Dr MH Chowdhury (Lenin), head of Health and Hope Hospital's Medicine department, made the observations while talking to our sister agency UNB.

The analysts said the government should take proper steps to strictly implement its 15-point guideline and intensify monitoring and screening of the incoming passengers through air and land ports and ensure their quarantine.

They also said the enforcement of the law is also now necessary to force people to maintain health protocols and wear masks since most people are now reluctant about following the health safety rules due to the current very low Covid infection rate.

It's just a matter of time

Dr Lenin said Omicron had already spread to 50-plus countries in the world, including India, Sri Lanka and Malaysia, Saudi Arabia, the USA and the UK. "As Bangladesh has strong communications and connectivity with these countries, we fear this virus may enter Bangladesh at any time."

At the same time, he said, a good number of people returned to Bangladesh from African countries and the Omicron-affected nations over the last three weeks. So there is a likelihood it arrived here even before the women cricketers got back home.

"Many of them have been kept in quarantine, while the administration has no information about 240 others. Some of them could carry this virus to the country. So, we're at high risk of transmission of Omicron," Lenin said.

He said the Directorate General of Health Services (DGHS) has already issued a 15-point guideline to tackle the risk. "We're also hearing about many plans to implement the guidelines, but strong efforts are not visible to do so."

The expert said most people in Bangladesh are now reluctant about maintaining the health protocols and wear masks. "But no step is in sight to encourage people to follow the health safety rules."

He said many people having the symptoms of Covid are still unwilling to undergo tests. "The government should motivate such people to come to Covid testing centres."

"We must ensure that those who come from Omicron-hit countries stay in quarantine for two weeks. It has to be ensured that every incoming passenger is screened and monitored properly in airports and land ports," Lenin said.

Dr AM Zakir Hossain said Omicron may arrive in Bangladesh through incoming passengers, and that is what it did. "It may increase the infection rate, but the fatality rate may not be high."

High mutation capability

Dr Bijon Kumar Sil said Omicron is a super mutant strain of Covid-19 and it still seems not that much dangerous like the Delta variant.

He thinks the virus may turn deadly with the passage of time through mutation as it has been spreading fast in different countries. "Omicron has high mutation capability as it has already mutated at least 50 times while Delta variant did it 15 times."

As Omicron has a high amount of spike mutations, the expert said the complete structure of the virus can be changed through further mutation.

Prof Nazrul Islam said Omicron is less virulent, but if it enters Bangladesh and mutates again it may invite dangers.

"So far we don't know much about Omicron. We must be careful about this new strain of coronavirus and we need to remain active to prevent it. Though this new strain does not cause severe illness, its ability to infect humans is greater than that of any previous variant."

Dr Lenin said though Omicron infected people in different countries are showing mild symptoms, it cannot be said it will act similarly in Bangladesh as the virus continues to change its character.

"It's a new strain and we know little about it. But we have to get ready to face the worst and put in our best efforts to prevent it," he observed.

Vaccine efficacies

Dr Bijon said the new Covid variant can potentially reduce vaccine efficacies. "But the effects of vaccines are still under investigation. But I think the vaccines will not become useless."

He, however, said the patients recovered from previous Covid infections, including the delta variant, showed a high level of protection (95%).

Prof Nazrul said Omicron can dodge vaccine protection and it has already been proved. "So, we must wear masks and maintain other health safety rules, including washing hands and maintaining social distancing rules."

8 million elderly

Dr Lenin said around 24 percent of the population had so far been brought under two doses of vaccines while nearly 39 percent under single dose.

"Still, many elderly people remain out of vaccine coverage. The government should launch a special drive to inoculate around 80 lakhs of elderly people urgently as they are very vulnerable to the highly contagious Omicron variant," he advised.

The expert said vaccine effectiveness against Omicron may dip by a few points, but vaccines can still help reduce the severity of the virus, especially in the case of elderly people having weak immune systems.

Bangladesh is planning to step up its campaign to administer booster shots against Covid-19 following the discovery of confirmed cases of the Omicron variant.

The government issued a directive to relevant departments at a regular cabinet meeting chaired by Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina in the wake of the rapidly transmissible variant Omicron surfacing in different parts of the world as well as in Bangladesh.

The directive also followed the latest suggestions of the country's health consultative body, which recommended senior citizens and frontliners get a booster shot six months after the second dose.

The government's National Technical Advisory Committee on Covid-19 suggested that the frontliners and those aged 60 and above, who received the second jab at least six months ago, be given booster doses.

The committee also recommended limiting any gathering and meeting to control the new Omicron variant of the virus.

It said all the meetings should be held online unless absolutely necessary.

It also stressed the need for screening, quarantine and isolation around the country as part of various beefed-up measures to rein in the pandemic. But is it all an overreaction? (see next story)

Additional reporting by Abdur Rahman Jahangir

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