Panic Grips Rohingya Refugee Camps in Bangladesh over Coronavirus Concerns

Sunil Barua, Abdur Rahman and Sharif Khiam
Cox’s Bazar, Teknaf and Dhaka, Bangladesh
200319-BD-rohingya-620.jpg Bangladeshi health workers check Myanmar sailors who arrived at the Teknaf port for COVID-19 symptoms, March 18, 2020.
Photo: Benar

Panic hit Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh on Thursday after an international charity’s report highlighted that the government had no resources to test for the deadly coronavirus, rights groups and officials said.

A Save the Children report, which was published on its website Wednesday, generated alarm among refugees in Cox’s Bazar district, Rohingya leader Syed Ullah told BenarNews.

“Panic over coronavirus outbreaks have spread in the camps because many Rohingya returning from foreign countries have not been subjected to surveillance,” Ullah said.

“Most of our people do not know how to remain safe from COVID-19,” he said, using the official name of the novel coronavirus.

Save the Children’s report said authorities in Cox’s Bazar, home to the largest refugee settlement in the world, do not have a system in place to screen for COVID-19 “and there are no intensive care units for the nearly 1 million refugees, half of whom are children.”

“With freedom of movement severely restricted and cramped conditions also compromising people’s ability to self-isolate, the virus could prove catastrophic,” the NGO said.

Bangladesh reported 17 cases of the coronavirus, with one death, as of Thursday, but none of those who have tested positive are Rohingya.

COVID-19 has infected more than 227,000 people and killed more than 9,300 worldwide, according to the latest figures compiled by infectious-disease experts at Johns Hopkins University in the United States.

Rashed Mohammad Ali, chairman of the Nhila Union local government in Teknaf, agreed with Syed’s assessment.

“China, the birthplace of the coronavirus, borders with Myanmar and Rohingya refugees are used to traveling secretly to and from Myanmar,” he told BenarNews. “That’s why our risk is too high.”

An expert on public health also expressed concern.

“As the coronavirus is highly contagious and the refugee camps are densely populated, it is not unlikely for the Rohingya to be infected easily and become panicked,” Dr. Md Mahfuz Hossain told BenarNews.

Another medical official offered a similar opinion.

“Due to population density, Rohingya camps are in no way suitable for home quarantine. There is no way but to stop everyone from entering the camps,” Dr. Mahbubur Rahman, medical officer at the Civil Surgeon’s office in Cox’s Bazar, told BenarNews.

In the event that a refugee would show signs of COVID-19, health authorities would take a blood sample, which would be sent to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research for testing, Rahman said.

He said 47 beds had been prepared in the health centers at refugee camps and 100 beds at health centers in the district’s Ramu and Chakaria upazila.

Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder told BenarNews that the government was building a 150-bed isolation unit for the refugee camps.

“In addition, 280 doctors, nurses and volunteers from different organizations have been trained to combat the infection,” he said.

Meanwhile, most foreigners are blocked from entering the camps, according to Saikat Biswas, spokesman for the Inter Sector Coordination Group, an organization that coordinates humanitarian and relief efforts among local and international agencies.

“Only foreigners who are active in urgent humanitarian works like medical or food and water supplies are going to the camps,” he told BenarNews.

In addition to monitoring the Rohingya camps in an around Cox’s Bazar, health officials also have been checking sailors who have been delivering livestock at the port in Teknaf.

“The health of 220 Myanmar citizens who carried goods on trawlers from Jan. 25 to March 3 were tested and no one had COVID-19 symptoms,” Dr. Surva Deb, a physician assigned to the port, told BenarNews. “We ourselves are at risk due to the unprotected way we are examining them for coronavirus.”

Malaysian efforts

The United Nations relief agency UNHCR said it was coordinating with Malaysia’s Ministry of Health to ensure all refugees and asylum seekers, including Rohingya who attended the Tablighi Jamaat gathering in the outskirts of Kuala Lumpur in February, are included in the COVID-19 response efforts.

The gathering has been linked to at least 579 of Malaysia’s 900 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“Refugees and asylum-seekers have been advised to seek medical attention if they present symptoms of COVID-19 infection, regardless of whether they were present at events like the mentioned religious gathering,” UNHCR said in a news release Thursday.

Local reports quoted Malaysian authorities as saying that they were tracking down the participants but had been unable to find about 4,000 of them.

UNHCR said it was coordinating with Malaysian authorities not to arrest refugees with expired documents.

“To counter the spread of COVID-19, it is paramount that any person on the territory of Malaysia regardless of their document status has access to medical attention and testing,” UNHCR said.

Nisha David in Kuala Lumpur contributed to this report.


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