The sprawling Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, hosts to more than 1.1 million forcibly displaced Myanmar nationals, are vulnerable to a high risk of coronavirus outbreak which could prove deadly for both the refugees and the local community.
Louise Donovan, Communications Officer of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said they appreciate Bangladesh’s overall measures taken to prevent the spread of coronavirus and welcomed the inclusion of Rohingyas in the National Response Plan.
“While there’re currently no suspected cases of COVID-19 in the Rohingya camps, we’re taking the situation very seriously and closely monitoring,” she said in an email interview with UNB.
Bangladesh has so far confirmed 48 coronavirus cases and five deaths. The virus, first reported in China in December, has infected 684,652 people so far and killed 32,112 of them, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Donovan said the humanitarian community has taken preventive and precautionary measures to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 and staff at clinics and facilities serving the Rohingya camps received Infection Prevention and Control training.
An aid agency official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said the situation in the camps is fragile and one can only imagine the devastation coronavirus can cause here. “Given the situation here, coronavirus will spread rapidly in the camps and everyone could become infected,” he said.
Social distancing and personal hygiene are two key things that help minimise the risk of coronavirus transmission. But in cramped, overcrowded camps, social distancing is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
Donovan said hygiene promotion has been stepped up, and all partners are ensuring that water and soap is readily available to all.
“The needs of local primary health centres within the camps and in the surrounding communities have been assessed and support is being provided in the form of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for health workers, as well as for the establishment of isolation areas,” she said.
All WASH and health partners carry out regular hygiene promotion activities within the camps. Trainings are being arranged for health workers and volunteers so that key messages are shared regularly with the refugees.
Communication is ongoing through radio, video, posters, leaflets and messages in Rohingya, Burmese and Bengali languages explaining how the virus spreads, how people can protect themselves and their families, its symptoms and care-seeking.
“Communication is key to timely and effective management of this situation,” she noted, recommending lifting mobile data communications restrictions in Rohingya camps. “Lifesaving health interventions require rapid and effective communication.”
The IEDCR field laboratory in Cox’s Bazar is conducting the final preparations for starting testing samples for COVID-19, she said.
Persons showing coronavirus symptoms will be kept in a temporary isolated area until they can be safely transported to a designated isolation unit in a pre-identified facility, she said.
Mapping of isolation facilities, ambulances and 24/7 health facilities is ongoing, with current isolation facilities for a capacity of almost 400 refugees and surrounding host community. Planning is underway to prepare an additional 1,000 beds for refugees and host community.
The government and humanitarian partners are working on identifying additional sites within the camps and establishing isolation and treatment facilities. Health sector partners are mapping existing supplies and identifying urgent procurement needs, and medical staff capacity.
Meanwhile, the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) has suspended all activities, except for essential services in all 34 Rohingya camps from March 25.
A spokesperson for the WHO and the RRRC did not respond to requests for comments for this article.
“The outbreak is a global challenge that must be addressed through international solidarity and cooperation,” Donovan said. “It also serves as a reminder that in order to effectively combat any public health emergency, everyone – including refugees - should be able to access health facilities and services in a non-discriminatory manner.”