MUMBAI, India – Days after the first confirmed COVID-19 coronavirus death of a Rohingya refugee in Bangladesh, officials fear the disease could decimate the refugee camps in the country.
More than one million refugees from neighboring Myanmar are living in camps near the city of Cox’s Bazar, in southern Bangladesh.
On Friday, the city and its environs were added to the country’s coronavirus “red zone” and put on lockdown until June 20.
The lockdown will be effective until June 20, 2020.
Immanuel Chayan Biswas, the Communications Officer for Rohingya Response Program of Caritas Bangladesh, said many Rohingyas are not aware of the seriousness of the coronavirus.
“This is the most worrying issue for us. Many of the Rohingya often say that birth and death are in the hands of Allah. We only believe in God alone. We are oppressed. And Allah is with the oppressed,” he told Crux.
He also said other factors are making it difficult to stop the spread of the pandemic, including unhealthy sanitation, overcrowding, lack of hygiene equipment, and a lack of education and awareness.
Most of the Rohingya at the Bangladesh camps have arrived from Myanmar since August 2017, when the military began conducting clearance operations after a series of rebel attacks in Myanmar’s Rakhine state. The Rohingya are Muslims and have long faced discrimination in Buddhist-majority Myanmar, including being denied citizenship since 1982.
The population density of the camps is staggering: About 103,600 per square mile, more than 40 times the average population density in Bangladesh as a whole – and it is one of the most crowded countries on earth.
Refugees live in side-by-side plastic huts, each just a little larger than 100 square feet, and some holding a dozen residents.
Biswas said the Bangladesh government, UN agencies, and local NGO’s such as Caritas are “working round the clock and have taken huge preparation to combat the virus.”
The first Rohingya refugee to die after testing positive for COVID-19 was a 71-year-old man who passed away in a coronavrius isolation center in a refugee camp. He died May 30, and his test came back positive two days later.
“I mean, it’s, obviously, a very worrying development,” said U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric.
I do know that our humanitarian teams on the ground are working very diligently with the refugee community, with the host community, and of course, the Bangladeshi communities to try to contain the outbreak as quickly and as effectively as possible,” he told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.
“But, obviously, refugee camps, especially the various camps around Cox’s Bazar, are a very, very high-risk area, and that’s why we’re working very quickly to try to contain it.”
Aid workers have long warned that the deadly virus could sweep through the squalid accommodation and its under-nourished population.
As of June 2, there were 848 cases in all of Cox’s Bazar, with at least 29 refugees in that total.
“At the field level, the biggest worry is that the host community people at Moriccha, Courtbazar, and Ukhiya are extremely careless about getting infected. Therefore, visiting the camps even in small groups will expose the staff to risk,” Biswas told Crux.
He also said the people in the camps are becoming panicked after the death of the first refugee death.
“This may create an unstable situation in camp among all. The virus may spread around the whole camp and may cause more deaths to Rohingya and Bangladeshis,” the Caritas worker said.
One concern is that people going to quarantine centers in the camps are being stigmatized when they leave, making it less likely for people to be isolating if they show symptoms or come into close contact with people who have tested positive for the disease.
He said other issues are also causing problems.
“Maintaining the proper chain of information sharing and reporting is becoming challenging,” he said. “People are roaming here and there without maintaining safety measures like wearing a mask, social distancing; and personal hygiene may increase the risk factors.”
Biswas also said that since aid workers and security are spending less time in the camps, there are worries that human trafficking, drug smuggling, robbery, and other crimes may increase and be harder to stop. He noted that incidents of domestic violence are already on the increase.
“In spite of all the odds, we are to continue our service,” he told Crux.
“Proper and clear instructions should be provided to the staff who will be actively involved in our activities. All the precautionary measures should be ensured to provide as much service as we can,” Biswas explained.
“There is a need for rigorous activities like awareness sessions engaging religious leaders to overcome this pandemic otherwise unrepairable loss to be counted. There is no alternative for creating much awareness among Rohingya communities,” he said.