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Coronavirus Concern Grows For Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh

Abu Sayod, and his wife, Anuwara Begum in the living room/bedroom of their shelter at Kutupalong refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar Feb. 13, 2020. The children are (L-R) Aru Juma, Anayet Husson, Aziz Fatima, Saiful Islam, Jahed Husson, Tasmin Fatima and Nur Fatima. (Hai Do/VOA)
Coronavirus Concern Grows For Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh
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Concern is growing about a possible outbreak of the new coronavirus in the world’s largest refugee camp in Bangladesh. Officials warn that containing the disease among the more than 1 million Rohingya refugees will be extremely difficult.

About 40,000 people per square kilometer live in temporary shelters made mostly of sticks and plastic. The density in the camp is more than 40 times the average density of Bangladesh.

Each shelter is barely 10 square meters and many are overcrowded with as many as 12 people in a single home.

There have been no reported cases of infection in the camps yet, but officials remain concerned. The United Nations is not doing any testing for the virus but sends suspected cases to a government hospital.

Social distancing almost impossible

“We are doing our best to protect them, but if the virus breaks out it will be a tough job for all of us,” said Mohammad Shamsuddoza, an official with Bangladesh’s Refugee, Relief and Repatriation Commission, by phone from Cox’s Bazar. Cox's Bazar is a coastal city near the camps.

Shamsuddoza said the 34 camps face major difficulties. But, there have been preparations to provide better health care services there.

“It’s overcrowded, every family has multiple members,” he said. “So this is, practically, very difficult to keep them separated.”

Rachel Wolff of the aid group World Vision in Cox’s Bazar said “social distancing is almost impossible for families.”

As of April 3, the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 map reported six deaths and more than 60 cases in Bangladesh. The number of cases could be higher, however, as testing has not been widespread.

Robaun Alam, 11, plays cricket in an alley at the Kutupalong refugee camp on Feb. 15, 2020. It is almost impossible to practice social distancing in the overcrowded camps. (Hai Do/VOA)
Robaun Alam, 11, plays cricket in an alley at the Kutupalong refugee camp on Feb. 15, 2020. It is almost impossible to practice social distancing in the overcrowded camps. (Hai Do/VOA)

Most visitors and internet banned from camps

The Bangladeshi government has ordered a lockdown until April 11 for the country’s 160 million people. Troops are deployed to enforce the stay-at-home rules.

Mohammad Kamal Hossain, the top government administrator in Cox’s Bazar, said foreigners have been banned from visits to the camps unless they are “absolutely necessary.” He said aid groups have been told to carry out limited work.

An isolation shelter that can hold 100 infected people was built inside the camps, noted the official. And, a second 200-patient hospital is being deployed in cooperation with the World Health Organization, he said.

The U.N. refugee agency said centers to hold 1,200 additional patients were being prepared just outside the camps, in the Ukhiya and Teknaf areas.

Louise Donovan is the UNHCR communications officer in Cox’s Bazar. She said the agency is also planning to create medical space for 1,700 future patients. Donovan said the UNHCR is working on that project with the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF and Save the Children International.

Donovan said water and cleanser are being widely supplied, and thousands of community health workers -- including the refugees themselves -- are being trained.

COVID-19 public education campaigns underway

Others working in the camps are told to spread factual information about the virus. Muslim religious leaders and other local leaders are also being asked to take part in the education effort.

“Communications are ongoing through radio spots, video, posters, leaflets and messages in Rohingya, Burmese and Bengali languages," Donovan said. They explain "how the virus spreads, how people can protect themselves and their families, symptoms and care-seeking,” she added.

More internet availability would help. But, Bangladesh has restricted telecommunications use in the camps since September. On Thursday, a group of 50 human rights and aid organizations called on
Bangladesh to fix that problem.

The groups wrote in a public letter that the restrictions “threaten the safety and well-being of the refugees as well as Bangladesh host communities and aid workers," in connection with the COVID-19 crisis.

Fear spread across the camps after a 75-year-old Bangladeshi woman in Cox’s Bazar was confirmed to have the COVID-19 disease. Also, a Rohingya family of four that returned from India recently was quarantined for 14 days in a U.N. transit camp.

The message is reaching the refugees.

Women line up to fill containers with drinking water at the Rohingya refugee camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh on Feb. 12, 2020. (Hai Do/VOA)
Women line up to fill containers with drinking water at the Rohingya refugee camp in Teknaf, Bangladesh on Feb. 12, 2020. (Hai Do/VOA)

Wash hands, watch for symptoms

“The organizations working here told us about cough, cold and sore throat being the symptoms of the coronavirus,” said Golforaj Begum, a 54-year-old refugee at Kutupalong camp.

She said the aid groups have explained to the refugees that they should stay more than a meter away from one another and not mix in a crowd. The groups also have shown them how to effectively wash their hands before cooking and eating.

“They also told us to keep our backyards clean,” she said.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya began to flee Myanmar in August 2017, when that country’s military launched an offensive against the Rohingya population, following rebel attacks. Security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and the burning of thousands of homes. In January, the United Nations’ International Criminal Court ordered Myanmar to protect the Rohingya from genocide.

Myanmar’s government has long considered the Rohingya to be migrants from Bangladesh. However, the population has lived in the Buddhist-majority country for generations. Since 1982, almost all Rohingya have been denied Myanmar citizenship. They are also denied freedom of movement and other basic rights, including education.

I’m Caty Weaver.

The Associated Press reported this story. Caty Weaver adapted it for VOA Learning English. Ashley Thompson was the editor.


Words in This Story

tough -adj. very difficult to do or deal with

multiple ​-adj.​ more than one​

lockdown ​-n.​ an emergency measure or condition in which people are temporarily prevented from entering or leaving a restricted area or building (such as a school) during a threat of danger​

absolutely ​-adv. completely or totally​

leaflet ​-n. a printed and often folded sheet of paper that is usually given to people for no cost​

symptom ​-n. a change in the body or mind which indicates that a disease is present​

host ​-n. one that provides facilities for an event or function

quarantine ​-v. to keep (a person or animal) away from others to prevent a disease from spreading : to put or keep (a person or animal) in quarantine​

cough ​-n. a physical condition or illness that causes someone to cough​

backyard ​-n. an outdoor area behind a house​