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Covid-19 in Rohingya refugee camps

  • Published at 04:26 pm August 24th, 2020
Rohingya Children
Photo: Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Bangladesh is currently hosting over a million Rohingyas who fled persecution by the military at their homeland – Myanmar, in the world’s biggest and most densely populated refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar

More than just a handful of Rohingya refugees are showing symptoms of Covid-19 in the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar. 

In fact, there is evidence of large-scale spread of the disease within the camps. 

However, many refugees are reluctant to reveal this condition. 

Instead of going to the testing centres, they are flocking to pharmacies, seeking treatment for cough or fever -- primary symptoms of the deadly virus.

Three months after the first case of coronavirus in the Rohingya refugee camps was confirmed on May 15, rumours that suspected carriers are separated from their families to be put into quarantine or isolation are still driving them away from taking the tests.

“If they [health workers] suspect someone at health centres, they are transferred to the Kutupalong Hospital, forcing them to part ways with their families,” said Abdur Rahman, who runs a tea stall at Balukhali under camp 8.

This separation makes refugees feel more vulnerable.

Rahman also claimed that the poor quality of medication and equipment used in the treatment centres are also part of the reasons he is against getting tested. He prefers visiting local pharmacies instead.

Although camp residents admit that the government often announces social distancing protocols and guidelines via loudspeakers, it is not hard to imagine why such guidelines are almost impossible to maintain in the world’s largest refugee settlement.

Bangladesh is currently hosting over a million Rohingyas who fled persecution by the military at their homeland – Myanmar, in the world’s biggest and most densely populated refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.

In these camps, Rohingya refugees live in tiny shacks. Each shack is barely 10 square meters and typically houses five to six people. 

However, some shacks are home to as many as 12 refugees.

Large crowds of refugees can be seen paying no heed to the social distancing guidelines, often with their own stories about why they are immune to the disease. 

“None from our camp has been infected with Covid-19. 

“Coronavirus cannot catch people from this community. If someone has a cough or fever, it is because it rains almost every day here,” said Nazma, who came to Bangladesh in 2017 following persecution from the Myanmar military.

“We were asked to be at home, wash our hands and maintain hygiene by NGO workers,” said the 32-year-old woman who lives with three sons, three daughters, and her husband at a house in the camp.

When asked why she was not wearing a mask, Nazma simply smiled and said that her veil was enough to protect her from coronavirus.

2% infection rate among Rohingyas

The Covid-19 infection rate among Rohingyas who choose to take tests is only 2.48% compared to the rate of 16% among the host community. 

Only 3,176 tests have been conducted among Rohingya refugees so far, 79 of which came back positive.

However, the fatality rate of forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals in 8%, which is 2% for the host community. This is perhaps a more accurate reflection of the situation surrounding Covid-19 in the refugee camps.

As of August 16, 13 Severe Acute Respiratory Illness Isolation and Treatment Centres (SARI ITCs) have been ready to receive patients. There are 490 SARI ITC beds with an additional 279 beds on standby and 34 isolation beds in the camps.

Rumour, counter mechanisms

There is simply no alternative to taking a test, said aid workers for prevention of Covid-19 in the camps.

A study by Yale University researchers found that 25% of the respondents in the camps reported experiencing at least one common Covid-19 symptom — fever, dry cough, or fatigue. 

It also found that 42% of camp residents, who sought medical treatment, reported first visiting a local pharmacy.

Attendance at social and religious events is widespread among Rohingya refugees, correlating strongly to Covid‐19 symptoms, said the researchers.

“This is a uniquely vulnerable population living in densely packed conditions where social distancing is extremely difficult,” said Mushfiq Mobarak, professor of economics with joint appointments in the Yale School of Management and the Department of Economics.

There are also highly concerning rumours that anyone entering camp health facilities with Covid-19 symptoms are killed as it is the only way to contain the virus, stated ACAPS, an independent information provider.

“This rumour, combined with the common perception that health facilities cannot provide adequate health care, have likely contributed to the 50% drop in the overall medical-consultation rate across the camps over the past six weeks,” he added.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is operating a group of volunteers from the community to spread awareness about health and hygiene in the camps.

Speaking to Dhaka Tribune, Mostafa Mohammad Sazzad Hossain, UNHCR spokesman in Dhaka, said: “Initially, refugees had to cope with the stress of waiting for their test results in isolation. But now they can go back to their homes. This has encouraged more refugees to take Covid-19 tests.”

“Communications are ongoing in camps and host communities through radio spots, video, posters, and messages, in Rohingya, Burmese and Bangla languages, passed by Imams and other community leaders and volunteers. 

“They all are explaining how the virus spreads, how people can protect themselves and their families, the symptoms and also how to seek care when infected,” he added.

He said: “Communication is key to the timely and effective management of this situation. A lift of mobile data communications restrictions in the Rohingya refugee camps would certainly help the fight against Covid-19.” 

“Life-saving health interventions require rapid and effective communication. Humanitarian partners continue to advocate for re-establishment of internet connectivity within the camps, to ensure that all refugees have adequate access to information, and to enable communication between partners.”

“Coronavirus is a huge concern to most people around the world and refugees are no exception. This is why we are taking measures to ensure they have access to accurate information and to health advice on how to protect themselves and what to do if they fall sick.” 

“Awareness messaging is a top priority. Over 2,000 volunteers continue to work with communities, disseminating Covid-19 messages in the 34 camps and adjacent local communities, while 60 information service centres and 24 help desks have been installed to receive feedback and complaints. It is imperative that restrictions on internet and mobile communications are lifted during this precarious time to enable access to vital information. Since September 2019, restrictions on the use of the internet and mobile phones have been put in place,” he added.

Civil Surgeon of Cox’s Bazar district Mahbubur Rahman said rumors were initially a big issue, but the awareness created by volunteers has helped to change the mindset to the refugees to a large extent.

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