Aid workers are bracing for a coronavirus outbreak among the Rohingya refugee camps of Bangladesh, where more than 850,000 members of the Muslim ethnic minority have sought refuge from Myanmar since 2017.
Overcrowded, under resourced and lacking healthcare and sanitation, the camps in Cox’s Bazar are a “ticking time bomb”, warned Médecins Sans Frontières.
Just 88 cases of coronavirus have been detected in Bangladesh but testing rates are low and many experts believe the actual number to be far higher. When a Bangladeshi woman in Cox’s Bazar town tested positive on March 24, it sparked alarm.
Bangladeshi authorities have put the country on lockdown and restricted refugees’ movements inside the camps.
“Authorities are going around the camp and if they find people are not following curfew . . . they beat them,” said Minara, a Rohingya refugee living in Jamtoli camp.
The Rohingya are particularly vulnerable to infections, with families crammed into muddy shelters and separated from their neighbours by flimsy sheets of tarpaulin. Medical care is limited and disease often goes untreated.
“They’ve come here after traumatic experiences which many of us cannot even comfortably listen to. They are not the strongest physically or mentally — all of this really effects immunity,” said Deepmala Mahla, Asia regional director of CARE international, the humanitarian agency.
Humanitarian organisations are rushing to prepare for the pandemic. “We’re working with the government to scale up the number of isolation beds and identifying sites for new medical facilities,” said Louise Donovan, spokesperson for the UNHCR based in Cox’s Bazar.
Implementing all of the preventive measures that health authorities have recommended would be nearly impossible. Social distancing in the overcrowded camps — where up to 70,000 people live per square km — is like “telling people to get under their tables when there’s an imminent nuclear war”, said one aid worker.
Even handwashing is far from simple. “We can tell them that everyone needs to maintain their hygiene but when there’s not enough water points or even soap then that can be quite challenging — to say the least,” said Dr Husni Mubarak Zainal, medical co-ordinator for Médecins Sans Frontières.
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The government shut down the internet in the camps last September, citing security concerns and a rise in violent crime. Authorities reinstated it on April 1 but closed it again just a few hours later. Human rights organisations said the shut down was a bid to quash protest movements in the camps.
They added that blocking the internet had made it difficult to disseminate health information.
“Bangladesh should really be lifting all internet restrictions . . . it’s a major health risk,” said John Quinley from Fortify Rights, a human rights group.
Shamima Bibi, who runs the Rohingya Women’s Education Initiative, said false information was spreading through the camps. Some people believe that “if you drink hot water with garlic, salt, cucumber . . . you will not get this virus”.
Other refugees are avoiding medical centres because they think doctors will kill Rohingya found with coronavirus, she added.
Even among committed community volunteers, there is a growing sense of despair. “No one knows what the future will be,” said Ms Bibi.
“We are scared,” said Sawyedullah, a 26-year-old youth leader. “All over the world, each country is focusing on their own people, but we Rohingya are stateless. Who will care for us?”