Home > Special Supplement > Published: 01:24 AM, 02 April 2020
Hollywood actress Angelina Jolie joins in a press briefing as she visits Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, Feb 5, 2018. -Reuters
Barrister Fariha Afroz
The entire world is facing a tough time due to Coronavirus pandemic. Around 200 countries and territories have reported a total of 664,941 coronavirus confirmed cases and a death toll of 30,894 deaths. Bangladesh has confirmed 51 cases of Coronavirus infection and 5 deaths till date.
World’s largest refugee camp Kutupalong refugee camp is in Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Rohingya refugees that fled from ethnic and religious persecution in neighboring Myanmar are the inhabitant of this refugee camp. No Coronavirus cases have been reported yet among Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh according to World Health Organization (WHO) officials.
In last 2 months, over 70,000 people called IEDCR hotlines and only 1,100 have been tested. Testing is severely limited, and refugees are rarely a priority. We cannot say no one is infected in the refugee camp, rather, we should say we have been failed to detect any Corona patient because of the lack of testing.
As developed countries like United States and Italy are struggling with mass outbreaks of the Corona virus, international health experts and aid workers are increasingly worried that the virus could devastate the world’s most vulnerable people. Coronavirus fear grips Rohingya camps in Bangladesh as the vulnerable conditions they are living in can be a perfect breeding ground for contagion.
Social Distancing: When the whole world is stressing to create social distance from the society in combating the Corona virus, there are more than a million Rohingya refugees who are living in 34 camps in Cox’s Bazar. World Health Organization (WHO) advised to keep 1 meter (3 feet) apart. However, up to 12 people live in each tent which is barely 10 square meters (12 square yards). This population density is making social distancing impossible for refugees.
Maintaining Hygiene: Refugee camps are packed with traumatized and undernourished people with limited access to health care and basic sanitation. Most of them sleep on muddy floor spreading plastic paper in the tent. Besides, the refugees are still struggling for clean drinking water and flowing water in toilets let alone masks, soaps or hand sanitizers. People can’t even wash their kids, let alone wash their hands, said one of the refugees.
Steps taken to Protect Rohingya Community: In Cox’s Bazar, emergency awareness measures have been in place for several weeks. More than 1,400 refugee community health volunteers work within the camps to ensure key messages are shared regularly with the refugee population.
These include systematic health prevention and promotion messages, Donovan said. “Besides emergency medical teams, more than 100 national and international partners are supporting the health sector in Cox’s Bazar”, Bercaru said. Almost 300 health staffs have received training in Infection Prevention and Control (IPC) so far and up to 250 clinical focal points of health facilities are receiving refresher trainings on Early Warning Alert and Response System (EWARS).
Aid agencies have been raising awareness among members of the Rohingya community about personal and food hygiene measures to evade infection. World Vision’s staff members have been raising awareness about proper hand-washing since the beginning of the response in 2017 through their learning centers for children and through many other programmes in the camps.
World Vision, in partnership with UNICEF, is distributing soap to Rohingya refugees to help prevent Corona virus (COVID-19). Each family receives 10 pieces of bath soap (100 grams per piece) and five bars of laundry soap (130 grams per piece) each month for washing hands, bathing and washing clothes.
Hand- washing stations equipped with soap and water have been set up at all their field distribution points and camp facilities, including WFP food assistance points, women’s safe spaces, learning centers and multi-purpose centers.
In one of his interviews Md Mahbub Alam Talukder, Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) said that they have already collected sufficient testing kits to detect coronavirus for Rohingya camps. Health officials are ready to isolate people showing coronavirus symptoms, said Louise Donovan, UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) spokeswoman in Cox’s Bazar.In health centers inside the camps, more than 64 beds were designated to quarantine anyone tested positive.
The health centers, jointly run by international aid agencies, also have some empty seats to quarantine patients if needed. More than 400 protection community outreach workers will also support message dissemination, as well as other volunteers and community leaders. Communication is ongoing through radio, volunteers and community leaders.
More Steps need be taken to ensure the safety of the Rohingya Community. The aid workers should spread more awareness among the refugees regarding the precautionary steps. They should also educate the refugees on how they can spot the symptoms of the infected person. It is also very important for them to inform the health workers if they suspect someone with the symptom and isolate them till the test result discovered.
Where they are hardly getting any clean water to drink, hygiene cannot be ensured without supplying adequate clean water. Many rights workers are volunteering at refugee camps to build awareness on how to stay safe with limited water supply. But the government should look into this matter to help them to get enough supply of water to keep them safe. They should be provided with adequate masks, gloves and other sanitation items.
Lockdowns imposed by governments to slow the virus’s spread have become punishment for refugees who struggle to find food as they are very much dependent on others for their rations. Steps need to be taken by government as well as the aid workers to ensure enough food stocked for them to survive during this crisis.
In emergency situation, people keep themselves updated and take necessary safety precautions mostly relying on information available via the internet, radio, television. Therefore, the bar on internet access in refugee camps should be lifted considering the prevailing situation.
There should be a fixed number of testing kits reserved for the refugees. In the cities, people have more facilities and can keep themselves isolated from the society which will eventually slow down the spread of the Corona virus. Whereas, the refugee camps are overcrowded, they don’t have that option available.
Therefore, any person with the symptoms needs to be isolated and tested immediately, otherwise it will become uncontrollable. Moreover, adequate equipped medical staffs are needed to aid them as they are in the most vulnerable position.
If we think this is a big issue in developed countries, we haven’t seen anything yet if Covid gets into the refugee population. The Coronavirus could rip through these camps with devastation speed and mortality. While there are currently no suspected cases of Covid-19 in the camps, the UNHCR takes the situation very seriously and is closely monitoring.
If the virus is present, the camps are profoundly ill-equipped to handle it. In a developing country like Bangladesh, where the best medicals of it are left with very few test kits and the doctors are not being provided with the required PPE (Personal Protection Equipment), if the Corona virus breaks out in one of their camps everyone will get affected by it.
The Corona virus, which has no vaccine or agrees upon treatment regimen for Covid-19, the respiratory disease it causes, could be even more devastating. It would be more devastating than the insurgency that brought them here.
Barrister Fariha Afroz is a columnist and Associate at FM Associates.