COVID-19: Zafrullah Chowdhury, Women, and the Dot Blot Kit

A valiant freedom fighter and an indomitable spirit during the liberation war and afterwards, Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury is a known figure in the sub-continent. With a larger than life persona he does not need a grand introduction. On Sunday night, the last thing that I had read before going to bed is that Zafrullah Chowdhury has tested positive for Covid-19. He came to know of the result by using the GR COVID-19 DOT BLOCK KIT developed by his institution Gonoshasthya Kendra (GK). GK team headed by Dr. Bijon Sil had worked very hard in developing it.

On April 26, I had watched Zafrullah Chowdhury on Jamuna TV (a Dhaka channel). By now everyone in Bangladesh including virologists and bureaucrats knows that GK’s scientific team has developed a coronavirus kit. But it is not being mass produced pending approval from the Bangladesh Health Ministry. The GK corona kit is designed to test for antibodies of patients who might be carrying the virus. GK team had wanted to produce it on a mass scale. They claim it will meet the overwhelming demand for testing hundreds of thousands at a very low cost. This was going to cost each patient taka 250, and possibly could be even cheaper.

The problem is that there has not been much positive response from the Health Ministry whose approval was needed to begin testing on people. It is unfortunate that the people in charge did not even care to show up at the unveiling of the corona kit after saying they would. The speculation that has been floating around is that powerful interests such as some big name pharmaceutical companies do not wish GK to test it because of some unknown reasons. Zafrullah Chowdhury alluded to possible conflict of interest.

Each day the numbers of infected people and deaths are rising. New Age, a Dhaka English daily reported, as of May 28, “COVID-19 claimed the lives of 15 more people and infected 2,029 in the past 24 hours ending 8:00am Thursday.” “With the figures, the death toll reached to 559 and the number of infections hit 40,321 in the country”, said Nasima Sultana, additional director (admin) general of Directorate General of Health Services. “A number of 9,310 samples were tested in the past 24 hours and 2,029 of them found positive for COVID-19,’ she said in the daily online bulletin on COVID-19 situation. It was record for the country to detect over 2,000 patients in a day. Bangladesh on March 8 confirmed the first COVID-19 case and the death on March 18.” “The country is on 12th week of the infections and passed 82nd day on Thursday since the first infections. Some 500 more people recovered from the virus during the timeline totaling the number to 8, 425,” said Nasima.

On May 27, New Age also reported, “Gonoshasthaya Kendra will wait this week for government’s approval to start testing COVID-19 using its GR COVID-19 Dot Blot kits and begin the tests in the next week.” “Gonoshasthaya Kendra trustee Zafrullah Chowdhury told New Age on Wednesday that the government was delaying the approval of the kits wasting unusually high time when people wanted to be tested. He said that they submitted 700 more kits to Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujib Medical University for performance trial tests and were not sure when they would get result. Earlier on May 13, Gonoshasthaya submitted 200 kits for performance trial. As they got result from neither the medical university nor the government, Gonoshasthaya announced that it would test COVID-19 for clinical trial from Tuesday.”

I thought of writing about Zafrullah Chowdhury not because of him testing positive for coronavirus or for the GK team’s invention of the corona kit only. I also wanted to write about him because he is a symbol against class oppression of the poor, and a thunderous voice against the establishment. Moreover, I wanted to add my own impression of what he stands for, and what he has done for women, post-independence. I did not meet Zafrullah Chowdhury in person. After the liberation war, I have heard numerous stories and speculations about him from older girl cousins talking among themselves or with their friends. With dreamy eyes they used to talk about a handsome pragmatic idealist, and a medical doctor who had left his studies in the UK to join the freedom fight. They were captivated by the tale that while in the UK; a beautiful Irish girl stole his heart. They were very impressed by the fact that Zafrullah had torn off his Pakistani passport at a rally in Hyde Park, and denounced his Pakistani citizenship. They did not consider me old enough to join their grown-up discussions. But I could always sense that there was some aura of mystery surrounding him, and young women had found it to be very alluring. Unknown to Zafrullah, he simply had them thinking about his vision and charisma. They were mesmerized by his image, strength of character, and more importantly that he loved his country very much.

The lasting image of Dr. Zafrullah Chowdhury’s Gonoshasthya Kendra (GK) that is embedded in my memory: An American girl named Sally Bachman in a red tanter sari standing in a brightly lit room in front of a cabinet and filing papers. The date was most probably in the summer of 1978. One morning, I took a solo trip to Savar (on the outskirts of Dhaka) in a taxi from our house in Dhanmondi Rd No. 30. The purpose of that visit was to meet an acquaintance of mine, Shova apa (didi), who was working at the GK in some capacity. Sally took a year off while doing her undergraduate at Yale to work with Zafrullah. I had already met Sally at the house of Shova apa’s parents in Kalabagan a few nights before for dinner. We got into talking, and I found out that Sally was from Oregon State. We chatted for a while, and I had asked her if she misses her family while in Bangladesh. She then showed me a flower shaped chain pendant that she wears around her neck – a gift from her mother prior to her visit. She confided that she considers it her lucky charm, and keeps it close to her heart to feel her mother’s love. That night, Shova apa had asked me anytime I feel like touring the GK, I should just go and she will show me around, and I can see the hospital complex. Perhaps she was thinking if down the line I could be a possible recruit. I was intrigued by her invitation.

When Sally saw me come in she looked up, smiled, and directed me to Shova apa’s dormitory room. I was feeling very proud of myself that I could come to Savar by myself without telling anyone at home. I vaguely remember paying the taxi driver taka 200. During those days the family would never have approved of my going to an unknown place, to meet someone. In the evening, Shova apa and I took a public bus back to Dhaka. I did not meet Zafrullah Chowdhury in person during my day visit at the GK.

In the newly independent country, women by then had started to have their own dreams as Shova apa did. For some reason, she had remained single, and had decided to redefine her womanhood. I had heard that she did not want to be bound by a life of tradition, marriage, and children. So she had joined the GK. For independent-spirited girls like me such idealism was part of a romantic culture. Unfortunately, I could not find myself making the sacrifices to convince me that the future can be a better place right here at home. Besides, I was in the process of taking a transfer from Dhaka University to another US University. I was waiting for my student visa to arrive. There was a lot of restlessness among my peers as we did not fully know what our roles are going to be in independent Bangladesh after we graduate from the university. I was barely twenty years old at the time but one thing I was sure that on the home front; soon enough there will be a lot of pressure on me to get married to someone of my family’s choice. So I decided to come to America instead.

After the liberation war ended, Zafrullah came back to Bangladesh to serve the nation. In independent Bangladesh, like most idealists, Zafrullah also wanted to work with the poor. Bangladesh was facing difficult problems with a fragile healthcare system. He had a vision as the country was dealing with new realities. Healthcare is a universal right, and his idea was to get health care to rural communities. There were only a handful of public hospitals in Bangladesh. There were not enough doctors to meet the demand of everyone. He saw that the country’s poor did not have access to hospitals and doctors. But he passionately believed in the rights of all citizens, and how no one should be deprived of basic needs including better healthcare. I second that sentiment as rights are God-given and can never be taken or given away.

In GK, Zafrullah introduced nursing as a noble profession and trained women paramedics. He has been doing that ever since, and has been at the forefront fighting every fight to ensure that Bangladesh’s poor do not die due to lack of access to hospitals. He took on the establishment without compromise to ensure that the poor gets treatment in his hospital for a nominal fee. Slowly, he had joined other rights activists, and became one of the permanent fixtures on television talk shows to stand against injustice. He negotiated, pleaded with the heads of government over the years to stop importing medicine from other countries. Gradually, Bangladesh started to make a name in the pharmaceuticals industry. Now all the big pharmaceutical companies in Bangladesh export medicine to nations in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe. With good quality control measures in place, it can export to the USA, UK, Australia and other developed nations.

Women from different backgrounds came to work at GK, and to help Zafrullah to fulfill his mission. Many women, I suppose, gave up their comfortable life or the opportunity to get a better paying job in favor for a life where they could make a difference. “In GK, Zafrullah Chowdhury shattered the fixed notions of what women could or couldn’t do. He engaged women in unconventional works, employing them as electricians, carpenters, welders, etc. In 1982, many of GK’s large truck drivers were women. The hospital currently employs 2,500 people, 40 percent of whom are women.”

At that point in time, unconventional women like Shova could decide for themselves if they want to dedicate a chunk of their life in bringing social change. GK also provided a place to curious westerners like Sally Bachman to have a firsthand glimpse of what is being done to give medical care to Bangladesh’s poor. Volunteers like Sally brought with them modern ideas about organizing an office, running the administrative part by updating the filing system for efficiency, writing proposals and thus making a huge difference in the day to day operations.

Meeting Shova apa and Sally had answered a lot of my questions about Zafrullah’s vision for GK at the time. I had thought that Shova apa’s life was right out of the pages of a futuristic novel.

Zafrullah has been serving the nation in different capacities. As a medical activist, he has been involved in many healthcare related causes, and had ensured that the poor gets treatment in his hospital. Of course, from the USA, I haven’t always been able to follow his activities. I am talking about the era before the internet. Though Sally Bachman’s name came up quite a few times when I had talked with my husband about my old life in Bangladesh. I was surprised to find out that he and Sally were contemporaries at Yale. At Yale’s invitation, Zafrullah also went there to give a talk about his projects related to Gonoshasthya Kendra.

In 2008, I started to write newspaper articles. By then most mainstream newspapers in Bangladesh had their online edition in place, and I could easily catch up on what was happening. Zafrullah made the news quite often. With his signature white hair and trademark short-sleeve printed shirts, Zafrullah by then was a household name in Bangladesh. There were numerous occasions where I had seen how he was treated by the government. This brave freedom fighter was very badly treated in 2015 by the court system for standing his ground, and for refusing to pay a fine. The way Zafrullah was treated after the verdict of David Bergman case was downright shameful. Yet, he did not budge. He had remained resolute in his beliefs, and continued doing what he does best, talk on behalf of the poor and serve their interest. In Bangladesh, one can be presented with the highest honour from the state one day, and that same person can face indignity for speaking up, and for exercising his/her constitutional rights the day after.

What happened with Zafrullah’s dream for the betterment of the poor is common knowledge. Activist Shahidul Alam’s article published in New Age on April 28 lists some of the accolades that Zafrullah Chowdhury has received from his country as a public health activist. Yet, he remains on the radar of the government constantly. For the last forty plus years, he has irked many in the government with his outspokenness and critical views. So every chance they got, they have been unkind to him, and had tried to use intimidation to tame him. But Zafrullah is his own person, and had continued on with his medical activism. His goal has always been simple – provide decent medical care to the poor.

In the recent weeks, after coronavirus hit Bangladesh, Zafrullah said, “the country’s low testing capacity could have dire consequences for the population,” if prompt actions are not taken to increase the daily tests. “We need to be testing at least 10,000 samples every day so that COVID-19 patients can be promptly identified and isolated,” he told Anadolu Agency. “The IEDCR has about 60,000 testing kits right now. I don’t understand why the authorities are so reluctant to pursue large-scale testing. If we continue on this path, it will be fatal for this country and its people.”

Since the independence of Bangladesh, Zafrullah Chowdhury started this fight of helping the poor and that fight is still going on. He has predicted that “more than 50,000 people could die across Bangladesh if the government fails to take prompt action to boost testing.” Now Zafrullah is fighting a personal battle after being infected with coronavirus. Earlier, he was happy to share with reporters that he was able to take a quick test and it was “possible only because the Gonoshasthaya kit was available and he needed not to wait, he said, adding that if otherwise, he would have been the reason of coronavirus infection of hundreds of people.” He also confirmed that he “went to isolation immediately after his COVID-19 detection and was still in isolation.”

Zafrullah’s hospitalization is of course being used by the opposition BNP as a photo-op. I was astounded to see that BNP chairperson Khaleda Zia’s special assistant went to see Zafrullah at Gonoshasthaya Nagar Hospital bearing fruits and a huge flower bouquet on behalf of the party leader. It seemed BNP had ignored the basic fact that his corona infection does pose threat to others. The assistant was pictured in the room with his offering. There were also a couple of other people (perhaps hospital staff) with him wearing the personal protection equipment such as surgical gown, gloves and a mask. In the photo, Zafrullah remains seated on the hospital bed without any respiratory protection, eye protection or a face shield. He is looking on with a beaming, ecstatic expression on his face. It is beyond me as to why a hospital would allow visitors in a corona patient’s room? This symbolically significant photo-op is supposed to mean what? To me it states the obvious – to minimize exposure one should not be around a corona infected patient who is not using correct PPE equipment.

It is unfortunate that the medical activist himself tested positive for the coronavirus. Zafrullah Chowdhury is reportedly doing well after being administered with Plasma Therapy. The Health Ministry should stand beside Zafrullah as he so honorably and thoughtfully stood by the poor all these years. Does it make sense to delay the process of testing GK’s corona kit? In doing so, the authorities are killing its chances and simply increasing the death toll. GK team should be allowed to test the corona kit on people. It might just work like a charm despite what the critics are saying about its accuracy. Time is of the essence and the clock is ticking. Bangladesh government at least owes Zafrullah this much courtesy for his selfless service to his country.

Zeenat Khan, a freelance writer and columnist, is currently compiling her short stories for final edits to be published as a collection at a future date. She writes from Maryland, USA



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