March 15, 2020

Coronavirus fear grips Rohingya camps in Bangladesh


Md. Kamruzzaman
DHAKA, Bangladesh

Displaced community's vulnerable conditions breeding ground for infections  

Years-long ordeal and the tireless struggle for survival have made Master Abdur Rahim adept to deal with potential disasters.

He, however, is worried about what lays in store for him and nearly a million other Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The virus, which has killed nearly 5,000 people in 118 countries and territories, reached Bangladesh last week.

Although only three COVID-19 cases have so far been confirmed in the Muslim-majority South Asian nation, refugees in the southern Cox's Bazar district are distressed.

"We are poor. We are stateless. We are dependent on the mercy of others," the community leader of the persecuted minority told Anadolu Agency.

He spoke of the vulnerable conditions they were living in -- a breeding ground for all sorts of viruses.

"More than a million of our people reside in 34 refugee camps... four to five stay in a single makeshift room made of tarpaulin sheets and bamboo sticks," he said. "Most of us sleep on plastic paper spreading on muddy floor in the tents. We have fewer options to think about our hygiene or take measures necessary to fight the coronavirus."

Besides, the displaced community is still struggling for clean drinking water and flowing water in toilets let alone masks, liquid soaps or hand sanitizers.

"Some of us bought masks... 200 Bangladeshi taka [nearly $3] each," Rahim said, adding that it cost around 20 takas until a few days ago. "Very few of us wash our hands and faces properly."

He added: "We are panicked, praying to Allah to save us from this disaster."

The global death toll from the virus has neared 5,000, with over 125,000 confirmed cases -- the majority being in China, Italy, South Korea and Iran, according to the World Health Organization.

Water for hygiene

At the refugee camps, activists say, there is an urgent need for more water to ensure adequate hygiene, and prevent viruses from spreading.

"I, along with some other rights workers, are volunteering at refugee camps... building up awareness on how to stay safe with limited water supply," Razia Sultana told Anadolu Agency.

The lawyer, who won the International Women of Courage Award 2019, said nearly two-thirds of Rohingya refugees were women and children, who required more care.

"Children play on the muddy grounds the entire day, and get back to the tents in the evening dirty," she said. "Mothers are unable to clean their kids properly mostly because of water shortage."

Sultana urged authorities, as well local and international aid agencies, to pay more attention to the supply of water and hand washes for the Rohingya.

Possible risks

International aid workers also expressed concerns over the looming virus threat to the refugee community in Bangladesh.

"While there are currently no suspected cases of COVID-19 in the camps, the UNHCR takes the situation very seriously and is closely monitoring," Louise Donovan, communications officer at the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told Anadolu Agency.

Focusing on combined efforts, she said Bangladesh's Health Ministry had completed and validated a national response plan to contain the virus.

In Cox’s Bazar, she added, humanitarian agencies were finalizing a multi-sector plan, in support to the government.

"Almost 300 health staff 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)," Donovan said.

Emphasizing on supply of necessary materials, she said: "Increasing the number of handwashing facilities in distribution centers, health points and nutrition centers, etc., as well as the provision of additional soaps are underway."

Meanwhile, the European Rohingya Council also expressed concerns over the safety of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak.

In a statement on Thursday, the council urged Bangladesh to lift the bar on Internet access in refugee camps, considering the prevailing situation.

"The fear of coronavirus is spreading among the Rohingya community in Bangladesh refugee camps and inside Myanmar. In the emergency situation like now, people rely on updated information available via the internet, radio, television and so on to take necessary safety precautions," the statement said.

The Rohingya have been denied Internet access in Bangladesh, as well as in Myanmar, for several months.

The internet blackout in Rakhine and Chin states of Myanmar was the longest continuous internet shutdown in 2019 -- and continues to date.

'Preventive measures in place'

Bangladesh, meanwhile, says all necessary preventive measures have been taken in the Rohingya camps.

"We have already collected sufficient testing kits to detect coronavirus for Rohingya camps," said Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) Md. Mahbub Alam Talukder in an interview with this news agency.

Some 64 beds, he said, were designated in health centers inside the camps to quarantine anyone tested positive.

"The health centers, jointly run by international aid agencies, also have some empty seats to quarantine patients if needed," he added.

He said that the government had also provided the state-run Cox’s Bazar General Hospital with sufficient kits and other materials.

Regarding the apprehensions over hygiene, he said the water supplied to the camps was "fully purified", and that they, along with aid agencies, "will try to supply more water during crucial periods."

Persecuted people

The Rohingya, described by the UN as the world's most persecuted people, have faced heightened fears of attack since dozens were killed in communal violence in 2012.

According to Amnesty International, more than 750,000 Rohingya refugees, mostly women and children, fled Myanmar and crossed into Bangladesh after Myanmar forces launched a crackdown on the minority Muslim community in August 2017, pushing the number of persecuted people in Bangladesh above 1.2 million.

Since Aug. 25, 2017, nearly 24,000 Rohingya Muslims have been killed by Myanmar’s state forces, according to a report by the Ontario International Development Agency (OIDA).

More than 34,000 Rohingya were also thrown into fires, while over 114,000 others were beaten, said the OIDA report titled Forced Migration of Rohingya:
The Untold Experience.As many as 18,000 Rohingya women and girls were raped by Myanmar’s army and police and over 115,000 Rohingya homes burned down while 113,000 others vandalized, it added. 

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