Escaping ethnic cleansing in Myanmar, Rohingya refugees have survived unimaginable atrocities. Now along with the rest of the world, they face an entirely new threat; COVID-19. However, Rohingyas living in the world’s most crowded refugee camp are more vulnerable than most. Living conditions in Bangladesh’s Kutupalong Refugee Camp represent the ideal environment for the virus to thrive. Without international aid and immediate Government attention, a humanitarian crisis seems inevitable.
Housing approximately 600,000 refugees within 13 km², the camp has a higher population density than almost any city on earth. These conditions make it difficult for inhabitants to heed even the most basic advice from the World Health Organization (WHO). Social distancing is impractical when residents share communal facilities such as latrines and water points; many of which are insufficient. Doctors without Borders, a non-profit relief agency, report that people are frustrated when advised to wash their hands as often there is not enough to drink.
In 2017, Kutupalong experienced an outbreak of diphtheria, a serious infectious disease. That epidemic emphasises just how easily the novel coronavirus could advance through the camp. Similar to the coronavirus, diphtheria can be spread through direct contact and repository droplets. Although, the disease was vaccine-preventable, the WHO reported over 9000 infections—45 of which were fatal. The WHO’s early warning alert and response system (EWARS), was used by health care workers to monitor the situation. The ability to collect accurate medical data and process it in a meaningful way facilitates organizations’ ability to deliver a timely response.
At the time of this writing, the United News of Bangladesh reported three confirmed cases of COVID-19 within the camp.5000 people within the effected division have been ordered into lockdown and will be tested for the virus. Doctors without Borders reported there is a rumour spreading throughout the camp, that those infected with the virus will be taken from their families and killed. Such disinformation undoubtedly discourages individuals from seeking help, further risking a crisis.
The draconian restrictions on communication services hinder the ability for aid groups to coordinate a response. In September 2019, the Bangladesh Telecommunication Regulatory Commission, limited internet access to the camp. Discriminately, businesses were also told they could no longer sell SIM cards to Rohingyas. Excluding refugees and aid workers from receiving and participating in the free flow of information will be at the detriment of the entire country.
The WHO’s EWARS will likely be invaluable in identifying and responding to COVID-19 in Kutupalong and other disadvantaged areas. Importantly, medical data can be imputed into EWARS by health care workers even when offline. To reduce unnecessary barriers, the Bangladesh Government should reinstate communications in the area. Access to the internet is recognized by the United Nations as a fundamental right and will be paramount in helping refugees understand the looming threat and dispelling misinformation.
All of Bangladesh benefits when its refugees are looked after.
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