COVID-19 and Bangladesh's Rohingya refugees

Cox’s Bazar coronavirus case – the first of many?

With the first COVID-19 case having been detected in the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh, aid agencies are warning that without additional resources, there will be a public health catastrophe. By Rodion Ebbighausen

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, international aid organisations have been warning that an outbreak in the world's refugee camps could have catastrophic consequences.

To prevent such a scenario, Bangladesh has largely sealed off the Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox's Bazar – inhabited mostly by the Rohingya people who fled from ethnic and religious persecution in neighbouring Myanmar – since the start of April 2020.

People are allowed to move in and out of the camp only when it is strictly necessary. Police have set up roadblocks and patrols to enforce the restrictions on public movement.

In recent weeks, aid organisations such as the International Rescue Committee (IRC) and CARE Germany have been preparing for an outbreak as best as they can. Medical personnel have been trained and isolation centres have been set up. According to IRC, a camp with 1,700 beds is planned and several hundred beds are already operational. There is an intensive care unit with ten ventilators.

Identifying the chain of transmission

A few days ago, a refugee residing in the camp became sick. He went to the nearest health centre, where a doctor suspected COVID-19 because of his symptoms. A test was conducted and the results were sent to a laboratory, which confirmed on 14 May that the patient had contracted the disease.

 

"The infected Rohingya person is being treated in isolation at a Doctors Without Border (MSF) hospital in Cox's Bazar," Mohammad Mahfuzar Rahman, an official working for the Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) and in charge of the Ukhiya Kutupalong camp, revealed. "Six members of his family have been kept in quarantine separately. Their samples will be collected later and sent to the local medical college lab for testing," he added.

According to the IRC, the Bangladeshi government and several aid organisations have been striving to identify the chain of transmission since the detection of the first case. But the process is still on-going.

As a result of the confirmed case, more than 855,000 refugees and asylum-seekers in the camp and over 440,000 residents living in the immediate vicinity of the overcrowded camp now face the threat of being infected with the coronavirus.

Outside the camp, there have already been COVID-19 cases, but the government says they are under control.

Additional resources needed

Despite all the efforts, additional resources are needed to prevent a catastrophe, as Manish Agrawal, Bangladesh country director at the IRC, explained. "Health facilities are already crowded and overwhelmed, without the sufficient equipment, health staff or physical space necessary to treat cases."

Even before the outbreak of COVID-19, sanitary facilities in the camp were already inadequate, with many families sharing toilets and often long lines building up at access points to drinking water and washrooms. It is impossible to maintain physical distancing in the cramped accommodation. Under such conditions, rapid transmission of the virus is inevitable.

"Here, there are 40,000 to 70,000 people living per square kilometre. That's at least 1.6 times the population density on board the Diamond Princess cruise ship, where the disease spread four times as fast than in China's Wuhan province at the peak of the outbreak," said Agrawal.

Awareness important, but difficult

Despite various campaigns, Agrawal sees a lack of awareness among the camp's residents. Experts say Internet restrictions imposed by the government to curb the spread of rumours and false information have contributed to the problem.

"Internet and mobile phone restrictions in the camp have led to a lack of sufficient and accurate information about the coronavirus and how to protect oneself from the disease. These restrictions also impact the ability of agencies to respond swiftly in case of a reported case in the camps," Agrawal said.

It's unclear whether all of the camp residents are aware of the first confirmed case there.

"The Rohingya in Cox's Bazar have already suffered unspeakable trauma. We therefore urge the international community to provide financial support to aid organisations working in Bangladesh," said Deepmala Mahla, Asia regional director for CARE Germany.

Rodion Ebbighausen

© Deutsche Welle 2020

More on this topic