Fear is spreading through the world’s largest refugee camp as a potentially devastating COVID-19 catastrophe approaches.
Director of Programs in Cox’s Bazar for Plan International Bangladesh, Mohammed Riyas, says the medical capacity to treat COVID-19 patients in Cox’s Bazar, the community currently hosting close to one million Rohingya refugees, is extremely limited.
As the township of Cox’s Bazar is now under lock-down, only essential services including provision of food, hygiene information, water and latrines and medical assistance are permitted in the Rohingya camp. Schools have closed indefinitely. Although there have as yet been no confirmed cases within the camp, experts believe it is only a matter of time.
“People in the Rohingya camps are living in fear about what they are going to do if there is a big outbreak. That fear is very real. They’ve already suffered through a war, they are not ready to face another challenge like this,” Mr Riyas said.
Mr Riyas said there was one testing facility in Cox’s Bazar, one isolation space in the Rohingya camp and one local hospital with just 10 Intensive care beds, although the Bangaldeshi Government and humanitarian agencies are working to increase this capacity.
“We are talking about one of the world’s biggest and most densely-populated refugee camps with 40,000 people per square kilometre. Social distancing is something you cannot do. Social distancing is a luxury. Here in the camp, it’s very difficult. The best chance we have is to make sure we keep the number of cases at zero.”
Plan International humanitarian staff are still travelling to the camp on a daily basis to run COVID-19 information sessions, to ensure water, hygiene and sanitation facilities are operations and to continue child protection work. They wear personal protective equipment, follow strict hand-washing and social distancing protocols and undergo routine temperature checks to ensure the safety of the camp’s inhabitants.
Mr Riyas fears a significant outbreak in the camp would see these essential services shut down altogether.
“In the camp, if COVID-19 is widespread it’s going to be very difficult, as humanitarian operations might reduce or stop for fear of spreading the infection. This means essential services might have to cease, like provision of food and maintaining the water supply,” Mr Riyas said.
“We also strongly believe that education has been severely affected by COVID-19 and we need to work with government communities to restore education and assist communities to get back to school. The online learning option is not available for these children, so we need to find other ways to ensure their education is not disrupted.”
Information sharing to counter fear and provide medical advice, is a huge challenge as the camps do not have reliable or widespread coverage.
On Thursday, a coalition of 26 aid and humanitarian organisations in Bangladesh – including Plan International - penned an open letter urging the Bangladeshi and Myanmar Governments to provide reliable internet coverage for the camp, as lack of information fuels fear and panic.
“The messages the refugees are getting about COVID-19 are limited to what they receive from the government and humanitarian agencies. Internet access is not available in the camp, so there’s no TV, no radio, no internet and that is very difficult because the lack of information can cause panic,” Mr Riyas added.
“Women and girls are especially vulnerable because the information is less likely to reach them. We need to make sure the information goes to men and women equally. Information will save lives.”