Bangladeshi officials have imposed a lockdown in a southeastern district where more than a million Rohingya refugees live in cramped camps, in a move to contain the coronavirus pandemic, as the nation recorded its highest daily spike in confirmed cases.
Bangladeshi authorities meanwhile on Thursday confirmed 112 new cases of the pneumonia-like disease and one death from it. That took the national tally to 330 cases and 21 deaths since the first case was detected in the country of 165 million people early last month.
“For the public interest, Cox’s Bazar has been declared on lockdown,” Md. Kamal Hossain, the district’s deputy commissioner, announced on his Facebook page, referring to the district that borders Myanmar’s Rakhine state, home of the stateless Rohingya.
He said his office had decided to also seal off the refugee camps in Ukhia and Teknaf sub-districts a day after authorities announced the lockdown, which restricts movements.
“No one, other than the designated persons, will be allowed to enter or come out of the 34 camps,” Hossain told BenarNews. “We have taken this decision to stop the spread of coronavirus infections at the camps.”
Authorities made the move a day after officials sealed off the industrial city of Narayanganj and more than 50 neighborhoods in nearby Dhaka, the capital, to contain the pandemic.
About 740,000 Rohingya from Rakhine state fled their homes, beginning in August 2017, after Myanmar’s military launched a brutal offensive in response to deadly attacks by a rebel group on government security posts. The Rohingya who crossed the border into Bangladesh joined hundreds of thousands of other Rohingya at camps in Cox’s Bazar who had previously fled Myanmar.
“We have been trying to make the Rohingya understand that the coronavirus is fatal,” Dil Mohammad, a Rohingya leader living at the no-man’s land in Konarpara along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border, told BenarNews.
“This can cause death. So, let us stay at home.”
Md. Iqbal Hossain, an additional superintendent of police in Cox’s Bazar district, said they police had established more checkpoints after the lockdown.
“We have intensified patrols and vigils around the camp, so that no Rohingya can get out of the camps or no foreigner or aid workers can enter without permission,” he said.
“We have reports that a section of the Rohingya refugees, especially those who live closer to the border, maintain back and forth clandestine movement between the camps and Myanmar,” Hossain told BenarNews. “They can bring in infection, too.”
He said about 1.2 million Rohingya were housed in makeshift homes in Ukhia and Teknaf refugee camps.
As of Thursday, only one coronavirus infection had been detected in Cox’s Bazar, Kamal Hossain, the deputy commissioner, told BenarNews, without elaborating.
“The Rohingya people live in close contact [among each other]. They are very vulnerable to coronavirus infections. They can easily get contracted with the virus if any of the aid workers serving the camps carried the virus. So lockdown is the best solution,” he said. “We want to keep them safe.”
Hossain did not reveal the duration of the lockdown, but said anyone caught violating the order would be prosecuted.
Mohammad Shamsu Douza, an additional refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told BenarNews on Thursday that health authorities had placed 42 Rohingya refugees under quarantine, but 12 of them had been cleared after showing no symptoms within the observation period.
Rights groups had earlier expressed concern about the possible outbreak of COVID-19 in the refugee camps in Bangladesh, one of the most densely populated countries in the world.
In an April 6 statement, Amnesty International warned that the overcrowded camps were “being left behind in the humanitarian response” to the pandemic, which could have “devastating consequences” for the Rohingya refugees, whose extended families jam into tarpaulin shelters with mud floors.
“Basic, accurate information about the illness and measures to prevent its spread is failing to reach many people in the camps,” Amnesty said, underscoring poor access to information since Dhaka authorities restricted access to telecommunications in the camps in September last year.
Local reports said limited mobile internet access had elevated the sense of panic among the refugees, allowing rumors to flourish.
Saikat Biswas, spokesman for the Inter-Sector Coordination Group, which coordinates the humanitarian agencies serving Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar, said that only emergency activities, including deliveries of food, water and medical services, were allowed as a result of the lockdown.
“Only the foreigners involved in the emergency services are allowed to go inside the camp,” he told BenarNews. “The number of both local and foreign workers, serving the U.N. and other agencies, for entry into the camp has been reduced.”