Five die on overcrowded ferry as Bangladeshis defy lockdown for Eid

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At least five people died in Bangladesh Wednesday on an overcrowded ferry carrying more than a thousand passengers, officials said, as millions defied a coronavirus lockdown to head home for the Muslim holiday of Eid.

Tens of millions of Bangladeshis usually travel home to villages for the festival but this year the government has shut down long-haul buses, trains and boats to prevent the virus from spreading.

But ferries used to carry ambulances and food transportation trucks have remained in use, prompting a dangerous rush of people in recent days hoping to catch a ride on the vessels ahead of Eid on Friday.

The five people who died were found unconscious on the ferry near Shibchar, southwest of Dhaka, after more than 1,000 people rushed onto the vessel, which is designed to carry mostly buses and cars along with several hundred passengers.

"They passed out in the ferry due to suspected heat stroke. We sent them to a hospital where (they) were declared dead. At least eight were also hospitalised," police official Chailau Marma told AFP.

"The ferry was overcrowded as more than a thousand people boarded it," he said.

Hafizur Rahman, another police officer, told AFP that crowds had built up at ferry stations in the area packed with people hoping to catch a ride home.

"A five-kilometre (three-mile) traffic jam of cars and vans queued at Mawa ghat today," he said, referring to a major river station to cross the Padma river.

Health experts fear the massive movement of people will spread the virus to the country's nearly 100,000 rural villages, which so far have not seen any major outbreak of coronavirus.

"We are saddened at the way they have gone to their homes for Eid," Health Minister Zahid Maleque said, urging people to wear masks and not wander outside.

Bangladesh's government says more than 12,000 people have died from the virus while nearly 800,000 people have been infected, but experts fear the figures are a gross undercount.

Crowds of hundreds of thousands thronged the markets of Dhaka on Wednesday buying gifts for Eid.

The government has eased lockdown rules for markets and allowed them to open ahead of the festival, which is their most lucrative time of the year.

"Yes, the number of people here today is appalling. But still, it is Eid and some shopping during this time of the year is necessary," one shopper, Yasin Arafat, told AFP.

Another shopper, Mohammad Bilal, said: "I wish everyone was wearing masks and maintaining social distancing then it would be safer. But many are not following the regulations. They are just roaming whatever pleases their mind."