Covid-19 panic in Rohingya refugee camp

Rohingya refugees at the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar. Photo: UCAN/Stephan Uttom
Rohingya refugees at the Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar. Photo: UCAN/Stephan Uttom

DHAKA (UCAN) Fear has gripped the Rohingya refugee community in a camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh after an ethnic Rohingya and a local Bengali tested positive for the Covid-19 cornavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Mahabub Alam Talukder, head of the state-run Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission (RRRC), confirmed the infections and consequent measures.

“Two men were tested positive in Kutupalong camp—one Rohingya refugee and a member of the host community, who have been sent to an isolation center. We have put six families in the camp in isolation and the area has been put under lockdown,” Talukder said.

“We will trace their contact history to identify people who came in close contact with them and also put them in isolation. Additional measures are being taken to ensure the virus doesn’t spread in the community anymore,” he added.

Kutupalong is the largest among dozens of camps in Cox’s Bazar hosting about one million ethnic Rohingya Muslims, most of whom fled military crackdowns in Myanmar’s Rakhine state in 2016 and 2017. 

One refugee from Kutupalong camp, 22-year-old Muhammad Rezwan, came to Bangladesh in 2017 with his mother, a brother and a sister. Besides aid from charities, he ekes out living from tutoring English to Rohingya children at his shelter. He said refugees have been living in fear since hearing about Covid-19 cases in the camp. 

“All people in the camp are panicked now. Our camps are overcrowded and it is almost impossible to maintain social distancing. Rohingya families are worried how they can remain safe from the coronavirus,” he said.

Panic has also gripped aid agencies operating among the refugees. Dr. Shamim Jahan, health director of the United Kingdom-based Save the Children, fears a disaster if the virus spreads in the community. 

“We are deeply worried about the catastrophic impact of Covid-19 on Bangladesh as the country’s total case load nears 20,000. Now that the virus has entered the world’s largest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar, we are looking at the very real prospect that thousands of people may die from COVID-19,” Jahan said. 

“Despite the best efforts of aid agencies and the government of Bangladesh, healthcare capacity in the refugee camps is limited and across the country is overwhelmed due to Covid-19. There are only an estimated 2,000 ventilators in all of Bangladesh, serving a population of 160 million people. In the Rohingya refugee camps—home to nearly a million people—there are no intensive care beds at this moment,” he said. 

Pintu William Gomes, head of the Rohingya Response Project of Caritas Bangladesh cautioned that is not a time to panic but for more awareness and safety, saying, “It is better that no one knows who the infected people are and from which area, as Covid-19 has become an issue of social taboo and ostracism. We should not panic and see this as a warning about some gaps in health safety measures in the camps.” 

Gomes noted that precautionary measures have been in place in the camps for months and tests were carried out whenever anyone showed signs of the disease, and that while two persons tested positive, many came out negative. He added that Caritas would strengthen safety measures and awareness following infections in the camp.

“Besides following our regular safety rules during our services for the community, we will deliver messages of awareness to our staff as well as our beneficiaries so that they don’t panic and get confused by rumours but remain extra careful in using masks, sanitisers and in following safety rules during travel by vehicles,” he added.

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