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UNHCR: Rohingyas, host communities among most vulnerable to Covid-19

  • Published at 07:27 pm April 21st, 2020
Rohingya camp
FILE PHOTO: Bangladesh now hosts more than 1.1 million Rohingyas after nearly 700,000 crossed into the country from Myanmar following the 2017 brutal military crackdown in Rakhine State to join the Rohingyas who were already in the country Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

UN refugee agency also warns of life-threatening consequences if monsoon preparedness not completed on time

Rohingyas and the host communities in Cox’s Bazar are among the most vulnerable to the Covid-19 pandemic as the area is densely populated, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) warned on Tuesday.

“In Bangladesh, so far there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 infection among the Rohingya refugee population,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic told a press briefing in Geneva.

“Despite this, both host communities and refugees in Cox’s Bazar, with a population density one and a half times higher than New York City, are considered to be among the most at risk globally in this pandemic,” he said.

The UN refugee agency also warned of severe implications of the on-going crisis  owing to the annual monsoon in Bangladesh, saying that the area was also seasonally prone to both landslides and flash flooding.

“To address the risks of a potential outbreak of coronavirus in the camps, the government of Bangladesh, together with UNHCR and partners, has ensured the inclusion of Rohingya refugees in its national response,” said the spokesperson.

The UNHCR and its partners have begun a construction of isolation and treatment facilities, with the goal of ensuring the availability of 1,900 beds to serve both refugees and host communities in Cox’s Bazar in the coming weeks, he said.

“To ensure preparedness measures can proceed safely, personal protective equipment (PPE) is desperately needed, given the magnitude of the increased demands. The large-scale procurement and distribution of PPE is vital to ensure that COVID-19 does not take hold and spread rapidly,” Mahecic said.

“Overall, the 2020 Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya Humanitarian Crisis sought some US$877 million to meet the most critical needs before the COVID-19 pandemic began. To date the JRP is only 16 per cent funded,” he added.

“In the midst of such a global public health crisis, it is clear that all of us can only be safe if we ensure that everyone is kept safe. Covid-19 does not discriminate. We must make every effort to ensure that the possible spread of the virus and the coming monsoon season do not exacerbate the already highly vulnerable situation of the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh,” Mahecic said, urging the international community to stand in solidarity with the refugees to avert a looming mix of natural and public health disaster.

Warning of life-threatening consequences if annual monsoon preparations cannot be completed on time amid the global outbreak of the pandemic, the spokesperson said that the coming of the monsoon rains risked worsening the already difficult situation of Rohingyas in Bangladesh.

“Annual monsoon preparations, however, have been impacted by the suspension of disaster risk reduction (DRR) efforts, including improvements to drainage systems and slope stabilisation work. Similarly, the relocation of refugees living in areas at high risk of flooding and landslides has also been delayed. Delivery of supplies has also been challenging, as the COVID-19 related “lockdown” has impacted road transport,” he said.

While it is vital to prioritize public health-related preparations in the camps at this time, cyclone and monsoon preparedness activities must also continue, said Mahecic, adding that both together would ensure that refugees had safe and sanitary living conditions in an additional, potential public health emergency.