Amid the rows of tin-shed houses and bamboo fences that make up the Rohingya camps in Bangladesh’s coastal district of Cox’s Bazar, people are living in fear.
“We live in shanties. Look at how tiny the [houses] are. We had not heard of the coronavirus… but an army man came to us and asked us to use masks, wash hands and maintain social distance – which is not possible for us. In such a murky situation only Allah [God] is there to help us as he saved us from Myanmar’s Army,” said Mohammed Younus a resident of Balukhali, one of the 34 camps housing almost a million Rohingya refugees, who fled violence in Myanmar in 2017.
The global coronavirus pandemic has reached Bangladesh, with 54 confirmed cases as of April 2, 2020. There has been one confirmed case of Covid-19 in the local community in Cox’s Bazaar, so it is only a matter of time before the virus spreads to the refugee camps, where aid workers warn that once it does thousands of people will die.
A recent report on the situation by Refugees International paints a grim picture.
“There are nearly 900,000 refugees living in the camps in Cox’s Bazar and more than 400,000 Bangladeshis living in close proximity to them,” it says. “Cramped living conditions, poor water quality and patchy access to healthcare in the camps leave refugees vulnerable to disease. A recent humanitarian risk assessment of the Rohingya response warned that the potential mortality and morbidity risk associated with Covid-19 is likely to surpass global averages.”
Bangladesh has put all 34 Rohingya refugee settlements into lockdown as part of its effort to stem the coronavirus pandemic. On March 23 the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC) announced camp operations must be minimised to slow the spread of Covid-19. From mass gatherings to handing over shelter kits and joint registration, all activities have stopped apart from Covid-19 awareness sessions and mental health services.
Authorities have asked more than one million members of the Rohingya community to stay inside their camps until further notice.
The Bangladesh government and aid groups are also trying to boost awareness regarding health, hygiene and immunity in the camps in preparation for an outbreak. This is being done primarily through the Majhis, or Rohingya community leaders, who are working to spread information about the need to maintain social and physical distance, hand wash and use masks. Established at the very beginning of the influx in 2017, the number of Majhis varies from 30 to 50 depending on the population of the blocks in the camps, said Mahfuzur Rahman, one of the workers in charge of a camp.
“Even though camps are densely populated, it is possible to fight coronavirus through spreading awareness,” said Mohammed Mahabubur Rahman, a civil surgeon in Cox’s Bazar.
“To fight the situation, we have a team of 10 members and we have prepared two isolation wards with 50 beds each in Ramu Upazila Health Complex and Chokoria Upazila Health Complex,” he said.
But these numbers are paltry when compared against the more than one million people living in Cox’s Bazar.
Moreover, the idea of self-isolation in the camp is a joke. And social distancing is a privilege that none of the residents of the densely populated Rohingya camps can afford. People also don’t have access to the water needed to wash their hands regularly.
“Six of us live in one shanty. Schools are closed now. The whole day I am either cooking for the family or studying. I know about the coronavirus, and as a precaution, I use a mask and try to wash my hands regularly. Some people have come to us and given hand wash and sanitiser, but the water supply is limited,” said 19-year-old Hafsa from Kutupalong camp.
Tightening the noose
The Bangladesh government’s internet ban has made the situation worse. Internet access has been shut down since September 2019 for “security purposes.” But this ban has restricted refugees' ability to communicate and access information, as well as access entertainment – television, radio, films, social media – that would keep people busy during the lockdown.
Social media could also have played a vital role in spreading awareness, but the internet restrictions make this impossible. One local journalist, who preferred to remain anonymous, said, “It is inhuman the way the Rohingya people are living in camps. It is not possible to spread awareness thoroughly because of the restriction on the internet…who is there to listen to these miseries?”
The report by Refugees International added another fear. “UN officials privately warn that they anticipate major problems in managing the spread of the virus inside their own international workforce, much less across the refugee population. The government of Bangladesh is allowing only essential services to reach the camps, undermining efforts to address food insecurity and cyclone preparedness.”
Women and children at increased risk
Now that the camps are in lockdown and men are sitting at home rather than going out to work, some women and children are left even more vulnerable.
“Now that the women-led community centres and friendly spaces for children and adolescents are closed, the rate of gender-based violence, sexual abuse and child abuse will increase immensely,” said Zubaida Nasreen, an associate professor at the University of Dhaka’s department of anthropology.
“The situation is disturbing. Rohingya people are anxious too and they don’t have much work to do. Such anxiety could increase stress levels and fuel sexual violence and cases of child abuse inside the camps,” she explained.
One Rohingya woman said, “I have no idea about the virus. My husband is a day labourer and mostly stays at home these days. He is worried and said that the disease is coming into the camp. He commanded [us] to pray regularly.”
Bangladesh as a whole is poorly equipped to weather the coronavirus pandemic. The country does not have enough hospital beds and personal protective equipment (PPE). There are only 45 intensive care unit (ICU) beds and 45 ventilators prepared for Covid-19 patients in the capital Dhaka. The Central Medical Depot has only 160 ventilators in stock.
Even in Dhaka doctors are struggling with a lack of PPE. According to reports, hospitals in and out of Dhaka have notified doctors to collect their own PPE as the national supply is limited.
There are concerns that people in the camps are already in too poor health to ward off the coronavirus. Access to water and proper housing are among their dire needs. Most importantly, the government should provide access to proper isolation centres, equipment and trained health care representatives, say aid organizations. As the Refugees International report noted, the lack of trust in government authorities, or credible communications, has limited the rise of leadership among the Rohingya, and that may be desperately needed in the near future.
Banner image: An overview of the dense living conditions in one of the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar district / Credit: Omar Munna.