Visiting a Dhaka pharmacy in the time of coronavirus
March 18, 2020
I went to a pharmacy in Gulshan 2. Not for hand sanitizer, but to get my parents’ medicine (following someone’s recommendation to stock up, because what if raw materials don’t make it in from China? They said four months’ supply. This seemed like overkill, but one month seemed like reasonably good sense). But I figured I might as well peruse the hand sanitizing options as well. You never know what is coming.
In a Dhaka pharmacy (in Dhaka in general), social distancing just doesn’t really work. I wouldn’t fit in the shop if I had to keep myself six feet away from everyone else. I handed the pharmacist the list of medicines and tried not to inhale.
But I was in luck! There was indeed a large crate of hand sanitizer bottles on the countertop. One of the pharmacists was stroking the bottles appreciatively and wiping them with a rag. I picked one up. It looked suspect. It didn’t say what percentage alcohol it was. It did, however, say “Boosted Antiseptic Smell” on the front. Encouraging. The most Bangladeshi response in the world to a coronavirus outbreak – and I say this with tremendous affection – would be for a couple entrepreneurs to put some water – with boosted smell – into bottles and sell them as hand sanitizer, 180 tk a bottle. Coronavirus vaccines were already available for sale, after all, thank goodness. Someone had recently offered me one in Cox’s Bazar (another pretty Bangladeshi response is to shout a couple slogans and break out of quarantine after arriving back to Dhaka from Italy, an event that took place a few days ago and everyone is talking about and nobody seems to fully understand).
“What percentage alcohol is this?” I asked the pharmacist, holding up the bottle. “It needs to be 70 percent to work.” I’ve been reading those articles, by golly! I coughed into the crook of my elbow.
The pharmacist was taken aback by my question. “66.6 works,” he retorted. “I know that bottle doesn’t say percentage. But it works. It’s a good brand. Joint venture.”
“Is it fake?” I asked.
He shook his head vigorously. “We don’t sell fake products.” I clearly wasn’t convinced, so he took a bottle of the stuff out from under his desk and kindly offered to squeeze some on my hands. I obliged.
“See?” He said happily. “Smell it. You can tell from the smell.” I tried to tell him that the smell, indeed very alcoholic, was just the boosted antiseptic smell, but he had already turned away. A man had just come in and asked them to measure his blood pressure, because he wasn’t feeling well.
My pharmacist was annoyed. “If you’re not feeling well, why aren’t you wearing a mask?”
“I don’t have a mask,” he responded feebly.
“Well, we have masks. Hey you – get him a mask” he said to other pharmacist who had been lovingly patting the hand sanitizer.
“Um – we don’t have masks. We ran out yesterday.”
“GET A MASK,” he thundered, and the poor guy hurriedly put down his rag and ran out of the store.
A steady stream of customers were still coming in to investigate the hand sanitizing options. Some seemed to share my concerns. One elderly gentleman picked up a bottle of hand sanitizer in one hand and a larger bottle of blue hexisol in the other hand and weighed the pros and cons out loud. (“This one is probably better. It’s the one that hospitals use. But it is much too big to carry around.”) Another gentleman nodded in agreement regarding comparative sizes, then took out his glasses to examine the bottles. “What brand is this?” he wanted to know. My poor pharmacist was really getting the brunt of questions about this hand sanitizer.
“A good brand, a good one. Joint venture.”
“Don’t you have Square brand?”
“No,” said my pharmacist, irritated. “We don’t have Square. Square is sold out. Dettol too.” He lined up the boxes of medicine I was there for and grumpily presented me with a bill. Then he looked up at my face, and for some reason, seemed to have a change of heart towards me. “Just for you,” he said generously, “Here is a bottle of hand sanitizer. Free of charge.” Touched, I accepted.
I took my boxes of medicine, alcohol pads, and hand sanitizer and got back in my car. Then I thought I better hand sanitize my hands. But I didn’t yet trust the new stuff, so I went for what was already in my purse, a reassuring bottle of aloe vera supplemented 70% alcohol, from CVS. If good old CVS from America isn’t the real stuff, I don’t know what is. I squeezed and rubbed, then examined the bottle to feel good about the information provided on it.
It turned out the bottle had expired in 2015.
You really just can’t win, in the time of corona virus.