Bangladesh – a state of emergency or a state of readiness?

Published: 26 Apr 2020

MAF staffer cleaning plane as part of the new coronavirus procedures in Bangladesh

While nations declare a ‘state of emergency’ in the face of coronavirus, MAF Pilot and Bangladesh Country Director, Mark Blomberg, declares a ‘state of readiness’ to serve the people of Bangladesh, particularly those living in the largest refugee settlement in the world, based around Kutupalong and Nayaparain in Cox’s Bazar…

In March, when all domestic flights across Bangladesh were grounded, it became apparent that coronavirus was going to significantly impact the country. In response, Mission Aviation Fellowship has been working with the government, the Bangladesh Civil Aviation Authority and other agencies to find new ways of continuing to serve the nation’s most vulnerable people affected by the virus.

New procedures approved by Bangladeshi authorities

As the number of coronavirus cases increased and movement across the country became more restricted, MAF Pilot and Bangladesh Programme Manager, Mark Blomberg, had to rethink how MAF was going to operate in this new environment.

Mark and his team have worked tirelessly with the government and various aviation agencies to achieve special operating permissions. They have also created the safest possible flying conditions to protect their passengers against the risk of transmission. Everything has been in place since early April. Mark explains:

‘As per the ICAO (International Civil Aviation Authority) and through conversation with civil aviation, the order was revised to include medevacs, humanitarian relief and emergency flights.

We drafted procedures based on guidance from the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), IASA (International Air and Shipping Association) and from CASA Australia (The Civil Aviation Safety Authority). They were eventually signed off by Bangladesh’s Centre for Disease and Control.’

New MAF procedures includedisinfecting the aircraft after every flight, taking people’s temperatures, appropriate social distancing measures, provision of hand sanitiser prior to boarding and on-board face masks for everybody. In the absence of local transfers, MAF are also transferring staff and passengers to the aircraft.

MAF are not permitted by the Bangladeshi government to fly any coronavirus patients or anyone subject to a government quarantine order. This is made clear on the MAF website during the booking process.

The need in Cox’s Bazar has never been greater

In a bid to assess the level of need across Bangladesh, MAF surveyed its partner organisations throughout the country.  It reveals that the tourist destination of Cox's Bazar on the southeast coast – and home to the largest refugee camp in the world (source: MSF) - is currently the greatest area for development and humanitarian support outside of the capital, Dhaka.

With nearly one million Rohingya refugees crammed into flimsy camp shelters in a country with already over 10,000 coronavirus cases (The Guardian), Mark says the need in Bangladesh has never been greater:  

‘Cox's Bazar has been completely transformed by the absorption of refugees. As a result, there are a range of projects supporting both the Rohingya people and the local Bangladeshi community. Many NGOs are working there.

We don’t normally serve Cox’s Bazar because there has always been good domestic transportation available. Since that's gone, the situation has been really alarming for these organisations.’

MAF Pilots, Mark Blomberg (l) and Chad Tilley (r) on a coronavirus mission in Bangladesh

MAF Bangladesh flight enquiries surge by 20%

With the absence of internal travel, new opportunities have arisen for MAF. Mark says interest in MAF’s services has gone up, especially from aid agencies in Cox’s Bazar:

‘They’re asking us if we’re able to fly because they’re now realising that their travel is limited. Cox’s Bazar has become a new and significant area for us to serve and the single biggest area of interest that we’re receiving.’

In the coming weeks, Mark foresees an increased demand in flights as the pandemic progresses:

‘Coronavirus may have been the catalyst, but there’s going to be more famine and other issues as a result of the outbreak. The impact on the economy will lead to a situation worse than the actual health implications of coronavirus.

Many organisations are doing what we're doing - positioning themselves for a big humanitarian crisis. If the Bangladeshi government asks the UN and NGOs to respond, it’s likely that we'll see an increased demand for what we’ve always done - flights to support humanitarian agencies.

Although everything has been thrown upside down, right now we just want to maintain a state of readiness and an ability to respond where needed.’