As countries close their borders and ask their citizens to stay home to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, humanitarian organizations warn that the impact of Covid-19 on Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh “may be huge”. On March 24, the first positive case was confirmed in Cox’s Bazar, a city that houses one of the densest concentrations of refugees in the world. Now, it is only a matter of time until the virus reaches the camps, although no case has been officially registered in the 34 in the region, according to ..

This Thursday, the Government has declared the camps “in total confinement”, no entry or exit is allowed “until the situation improves.” Only urgent food distribution and medical services can continue to function. A limitation that is added to the restriction on telephone and Internet use that had already been decreed in September 2019. Thus, almost a million Rohingya fight to prepare themselves with even the most basic information to prevent the virus and avoid false rumors, transmitted from each other in the camps.

On March 11, the World Health Organization (WHO) declared Covid-19, a disease caused by a new strain of coronavirus, a pandemic. For now, there have been more than 1.5 million confirmed cases and more than 87,000 deaths on the planet. Bangladesh, home to nearly 165 million people, has confirmed (as of Thursday) 218 ​​cases and 20 deaths, but critics believe those numbers are underestimating the real impact. As has been shown in the worst affected countries, the virus can spread rapidly and, for the most part, without being detected in the early stages.

The so-called social distancing that many countries are practicing to prevent the new coronavirus seems like a cruel joke to the more than a million Rohingya who live in the overcrowded camps of Cox’s Bazar. Most of them fled the attacks led by the Burmese army in 2016 and 2017, and currently reside in poor condition without access to clean water or adequate sanitation, which puts them especially at risk as they cannot maintain the minimum hygiene necessary.

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 Golforaj Begum, a 54-year-old Rohingya woman sheltered in the Cox’s Bazar camp in Bangladesh. The organizations working here informed us of the symptoms of the coronavirus and how to maintain our security: not going to other rooms, keeping a distance of two meters from others, not mixing in a crowd, washing hands … “, he explains. Suzauddin Rubel AP

Bangladesh imposed a total blockade on March 25 to curb the spread of the disease. Travel by water, rail, air and road was suspended, restrictions enacted after various international organizations expressed concern that the Dhaka government was not taking sufficient action. Even when the country registered its first coronavirus death in mid-March, tens of thousands of people gathered in the south of the city of Raipur to say verses from the Koran in the belief that they would thus protect the population.

Bangladesh is ill-equipped to handle a health crisis among its own people, say the experts consulted for this report; Much worse is the situation among the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees who have taken refuge here. Since the beginning of the current wave of atrocities in 2016, and for many years before, the Rohingya community’s responses to emergencies have been very effective. But the outage on the mobile phone network is making matters unnecessarily worse. “They cannot use WhatsApp to communicate with each other, and health workers cannot report whether any refugees are experiencing symptoms,” says Chris Lewa, director of the NGO Arakan Project.

The government-imposed restriction on mobile telephony is an added difficulty and a violation of the fundamental rights of the refugee population against which various organizations, such as Amnesty International, have already protested. In September 2019, the country’s telecommunications regulatory body ordered operators to stop offering mobile services in the camps, citing fears of security and illegal use of mobile devices. Local SIM cards are prohibited for refugees; now only Bangladeshis with national identity documents can use them. If authorities find a Rohingya person with a phone, they confiscate him. Refugees not only can’t connect to the Internet, they can’t even make calls.

The elderly, the most neglected

Amnesty International has warned that elderly refugees “are the most neglected”, which could have “devastating consequences”, given that the virus is especially primed in those over 70 years of age.

Bangladesh, together with the UN and other humanitarian partners, has worked to reduce the risk of Covid-19 spreading in refugee camps, but the organization claims that many people, especially the elderly, have not been received even the most basic information. Most of the elderly women interviewed by the organization, for example, have learned mainly from religious leaders and neighbors, but without further information that the virus is very dangerous and that they had to “be clean”.

As Matt Wells, Amnesty International’s Deputy Director of Crisis Response for Thematic Issues, noted in a statement, “Under the most favorable circumstances, humanitarian organizations are already struggling to meet the specific needs of the elderly rural population to refugees and displaced persons, or do not care for them at all. ” Making the same mistake in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, he says, “puts Rohingya old men and women in imminent danger” and calls for urgent joint efforts to avoid neglecting them.

Access to SIM cards has been vital for Rohingya for years, explains Matthew Smith, CEO of the NGO Fortify Rights. “The Rohingya were connected not only in the fields, but also internationally,” he says. “There are WhatsApp groups, some quite large, and communications on a variety of other platforms, all used to stay informed.”

Since the refugees found out that someone tested positive for Covid-19 in Cox’s Bazar, “they have panicked,” says Lewa, who has been monitoring their plight for years. Although it is not known with certainty if the reason is related to the coronavirus, the expert points out that “some members of the diaspora have decided to return to Burma these days,” despite the fact that conditions have not improved since they fled a few years ago. years.

The closure of the Rohingya refugee camps came on the day the first case was confirmed at Cox’s Bazar: a woman in her 60s who had returned from Saudi Arabia on March 13 after performing umrah (the pilgrimage to Mecca. of Muslims). Operations in the camps have since been suspended, but emergency services related to food, health and medicine continue as usual.

Dr Husni Mubarak Zainal, Health Coordinator for Doctors Without Borders, explains that he is “extremely concerned” about the Rohingya in the camps, as well as other vulnerable populations in Bangladesh. Cox’s Bazar district and the 34 fields within it are especially at “high risk of exposure,” he says. “About a million refugees subsist confined to just 26 square kilometers. They live close together in overcrowded bamboo shelters where families share one or two rooms, and access to clean water and soap is limited.”

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 Sagir Ahmed, 33, in the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, where he resides, on April 1, 2020. “People have been queuing for some help for a whole week. They will definitely get sick in This situation. Humanitarian work is not being done and people are going to die of diseases anyway, “he says. Suzauddin Rubel AP

Lewa of the Arakan Project also fears that the spread of the virus in the fields may only be “a matter of time.” She cannot imagine “how disastrous it will be” if that happens. “Refugees seem to have understood the problem, but it is something that they and humanitarian workers are really concerned about,” he says.

Humanitarian groups are distributing soap, have increased the number of hand-washing facilities, and have gone from house to house asking refugees not to move around the camps much and to keep their distance from each other, which is difficult in these circumstances. They are being informed through speakers, posters and brochures about how they can protect themselves and their families, and what they should do to seek medical attention if they develop symptoms. But as Lewa points out, communication restrictions are complicating the task.

Repression with consequences

It has been speculated that the government crackdown on mobile phone use in the camps could be in response to incidents involving several Rohingya several months ago. It all started with an attempt by the Bangladeshi authorities to repatriate the refugees to Burma (their country of origin) in August 2019, something that failed because the respondents felt that it was still unsafe to return.

A few days later, thousands of refugees participated in a peaceful gathering to mark the second anniversary of the Burmese Army’s ethnic cleansing campaign in Rakhine state. Subsequently, a local politician was killed, allegedly by Rohingya, and officers killed four people of this ethnic group who, according to them, were involved in the murder.

The construction of fences by the Bangladesh government to enclose the fields where this minority resides has also created “increased distress and fear, posing greater risks to public health and humanitarian access,” according to Fortify Rights.

With the Covid-19 and the cyclone and monsoon season approaching, communication will be indispensable. Smith explains that if the virus reaches the fields, “it will probably spread rapidly and, if it does, exponentially.” If that happens, it can overwhelm health professionals, who are already working in difficult circumstances and with limited resources in the camps. “Many Rohingya already have pre-existing health problems, and would be at particular risk,” says Smith.

For him, “access to information is not only a right that extends to Rohingya refugees, it is also essential for public health in general.” And protecting the rights of refugees and preventing an outbreak of disease “go hand in hand” to prevent it.

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