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Alumnus aiding COVID-19 response in remote Bangladesh through road safety

Posted: 24 August 2020

Bangladesh, Alumni, COVID-19, Impact,

In the face of the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s not just health workers who are helping their fellow citizens. Engineer and Australia Awards alumnus Mohammad Shahe Arefeen is playing a vital role in ensuring safe roads in remote areas in Bangladesh so that emergency supplies and services can reach the people who need them. Outside of his employment, he is also volunteering to assist low-income earners and marginalised groups affected by the pandemic.

Arefeen is an Executive Engineer of the Rangamati Road Division at the Roads and Highways Department in Chittagong Hill Tracts. This region is geographically distinct from the plains areas in Bangladesh and is home to indigenous peoples, most of whom live in poverty.

He works to ensure road safety and quality, enabling emergency supplies and services to reach Rangamati and other districts during the COVID-19 lockdown.

His role in the Roads and Highways Department involves maintaining the road network in his area of jurisdiction, planning required expansions (new roads, bridges), quality-assuring construction and maintaining other road infrastructure.

“Being in charge of roads and highways in Rangamati, I am ensuring that roads are functioning and compliant with safety standards,” Arefeen says. “It is difficult for locals in Rangamati to receive essential healthcare services because of the hilly terrain and remote location of the area. It is, therefore, my responsibility to make sure road quality is maintained to facilitate the delivery of emergency supplies and the provision of essential services.”

Arefeen also oversees waterway transportation and the ferry service between Rangamati and Chittagong. This is particularly important because many places in the Rangamati district can only be accessed via rivers and other waterways. Arefeen leads the team that makes sure that the ferry service is operational and safe so that patients in serious or critical condition can be transferred from Rangamati to hospitals in Chittagong for better treatment.

As the head of his office, Arefeen looked after the wellbeing of around 200 staff and almost 1000 labourers during the COVID-19 lockdown from 4 April to 5 May 2020. He ensured that these labourers and staff had access to food and other essential supplies.

In addition to his official duties, Arefeen also took it upon himself to help those in need when the pandemic broke out in Bangladesh in early March. He and his classmates from the Chittagong University of Engineering and Technology (CUET) initiated the Facebook fundraising page ‘CUETians COVID-19 Fund’. He led this fundraising drive, and received overwhelming responses and donations from other CUET alumni, both in Bangladesh and abroad. The funds raised were used to provide cash assistance, food and health supplies to those in need. Some of the funds were also used to provide personal protective equipment for health professionals at hospitals in Chittagong.

Arefeen also formed ‘Rise for Humanity’, a volunteer group that supports marginalised people who have lost their livelihoods due to the COVID-19 pandemic. “As a founding member of Rise for Humanity, I am working with my team to ensure that people who lost their sources of income have food to eat,” says Arefeen. “Through this platform we have distributed food to more than 2000 families throughout the country to date.”

He traces his COVID-19 response back to his study years. After graduating from CUET in 2008, Arefeen completed his Masters in Procurement and Supply Management from BRAC University. He then worked as a structural design engineer at Epic Properties Limited before joining the Roads and Highways Department in 2012. However, he always dreamt of studying abroad. In 2017, he had that opportunity when he received an Australia Awards Scholarship. With the support of his Scholarship, he completed a Master of Civil Engineering from RMIT University. From this study, Arefeen received the Civil and Infrastructure Engineering Postgraduate Prize in 2020, a recognition awarded to the top achieving engineering postgraduate by coursework student in their final year.

“Australia Awards gave me a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to build connections, share and improve my knowledge, and add a whole new chapter of experience in my personal and professional life,” he says

His two years in Australia expanded Arefeen’s horizons far beyond the field of engineering. During his Scholarship, his knowledge of sustainable development, equality and innovation improved significantly. “The lessons that I learnt while in Australia are now providing me with the tools to address the challenges resulting from COVID-19,” he says. Arefeen recognises that the significant challenges his country faces now are to look after the marginalised, ensure emergency food assistance and keep the healthcare system functioning.

“It is time for us to focus on sustainable recovery from COVID-19,” Arefeen says. “[In addition to] my professional responsibilities as a public servant, my volunteer experience during this COVID-19 crisis gave me a sense of satisfaction and I will continue my support for the marginalised communities.”