Updated at 5:54 p.m. ET on 2020-05-14
Bangladeshi authorities said Thursday that a Rohingya man had tested positive for COVID-19, the first case detected among close to 1 million refugees who live at camps and settlements in southeastern Cox’s Bazar district.
The man lives at the Kutupalong camp, the world’s largest refugee camp, said Mahbub Alam Talukder, the commissioner for Refugee Relief and Repatriation. A second man who lives in the host community and is a Bangladesh citizen had tested positive for the virus as well, he said.
“The International Organization for Migration has been taking care of one patient while the other patient is being treated at the Doctors Without Borders hospital,” Talukder told BenarNews.
Talukder said 500 beds were available and a hospital with 1,900 beds to treat Rohingya who contract COVID-19 was under construction in preparation for a possible outbreak.
“In addition, hospitals run by U.N. agencies have been set up to treat Rohingya coronavirus patients,” he said.
The district’s chief medical officer said the two new infections pushed to 129 the total number of COVID-19 cases in Cox’s Bazar, a district that border Myanmar’s Rakhine state, home of the stateless Rohingya Muslim minority.
“We have taken adequate measures to isolate the infected Rohingya,” Dr. Md. Mahbubur Rahman told BenarNews.
Nikaruzzaman Chowdhury, chief administrator for Ukhia sub-district, said officials were conducting contact tracing to determine who the two men had been near, and would work with camp management to lock down camps if necessary, if clusters of infections were discovered.
For weeks, international NGOs had warned that refugees sheltering at camps were at particular risk from an outbreak of the highly contagious virus because of their densely crowded living conditions. NGOs amplified those concerns as they reacted to Thursday’s news out of Cox’s Bazar.
“Now that the virus has entered the world’s largest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar we are looking at the very real prospect that thousands of people may die from COVID-19,” Dr. Shamin Jahan, the Bangladesh health director for Save the Children, a U.K.-based NGO, said in a news release.
“A refugee camp is no place for a child to grow up. COVID-19 has exposed how vulnerable Rohingya refugees are – the international community must therefore urgently find a long-term solution to their plight,” he said.
The population of the camps exploded when more than 740,000 Rohingya fled to southeastern Bangladesh as they escaped from Rakhine after the military launched a brutal crackdown in August 2017, in the wake of attacks by Rohingya rebels on government security posts.
The U.S.-based Physicians for Human Rights (PHR) called on the Bangladesh government to act immediately to improve conditions in the camps.
“This is a potentially devastating health crisis in the making,” said Ranit Mishori, senior medical adviser at PHR and professor of family medicine at Georgetown University. “The crowding, cramped living quarters, and poor access to health care, sanitation and information pose enormous health and human rights risks to the Rohingya communities living in refugee camps in Bangladesh.”
A member of a group working with Rohingya said COVID-19 could have come from outsiders.
“The people who have been serving the Rohingya come out of the camps at the end of the day. So, the service providers could carry coronavirus among the local people,” Noor Mohammad Sikder told BenarNews.
According to a Rohingya camp leader, only a minority among the refugee community is concerned about a potential COVID-19 outbreak.
“A group of refugees is worried about it, but a bigger section of the illiterate Rohingya do not believe that coronavirus cases have been detected at the camps,” Md. Nur told BenarNews.
Meanwhile during a press briefing in Washington, Sam Brownback, the U.S. State Department’s ambassador-at-large for International Religious Freedom was asked about the news of the first coronavirus case in the Rohingya camps and whether he was calling for Bangladesh to lift internet and phone restrictions that have been in place in Kutupalong and other camps.
“I was afraid of that. I had not heard that the COVID had arrived there, but [it] almost seemed a matter of time,” Brownback said, telling reporters that he had visited Kutupalong, which he described as “incredibly crowded.”
He also expressed appreciation for the Bangladesh government’s efforts in hosting the refugee population despite being limited in resources.
“This is a very difficult thing for them to handle and they aren’t heavy on resources, so this is something I deeply appreciate that they are doing, but they’ve got to let them have the internet access and I hope they’ll give access to all the health care that’s going to be needed as – with COVID hitting there,” Brownback said, according to a transcript from the State Department.
Dhaka COVID-19 hospital to open
In the Bangladeshi capital, Health Minister Zahid Maleque said that a specialized 2,000-bed hospital to treat COVID-19 patients in Dhaka was to open on Sunday, followed by two more hospitals in the near future.
“If we can open the three hospitals, the number of beds for coronavirus treatment will reach nearly 7,000 in the Dhaka division, where 85 percent of coronavirus cases have been detected,” Maleque told BenarNews.
In other developments, the Bangladesh government-imposed coronavirus shutdown, which was set to expire on Saturday has been extended until May 30, the Ministry of Public Administration said.
On May 10, officials partially lifted the order established on March 26, allowing some businesses and mosques to reopen. Since then, the number of COVID-19 cases has increased by more than 3,000.
On Thursday, Nasima Sultana, an additional director general at the health directorate, said 1,041 new cases were recorded during the previous 24 hours, raising the nationwide total to 18,863. She said 14 more people had died of COVID-19, bringing the death toll to 283.
Globally, more than 4.4 million people have been infected by COVID-19 and more than 300,000 have died as of Thursday, according to data compiled by disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.