Vast Rohingya refugee camp under threat from COVID-19

June 1, 2020

As COVID-19 continues to spread, concern is growing around the potential impact of an outbreak among the nearly 900,000 Rohingya refugees living in Bangladesh.

The Pandemic has arrived

The COVID-19 pandemic has reached the Rohingya camps of Bangladesh, where more than 850,000 refugees live on a site spanning less than 10 square miles. One resident of the camp and a local man were confirmed to have tested positive on May 14th, and several thousand people have been isolated for further testing. The camp recently recorded its first COVID-related death. At the time of writing, there are nearly 280,000 confirmed cases across Bangladesh.

With a population density far higher than Manhattan, physical distancing and self-isolation is almost impossible to put into practice and there is a huge risk that COVID-19 will spread rapidly through the community.

Crowded Rohingya camp

Physical distancing within the camp is next to impossible.

To compound the problem, over 10% of households have at least one individual above the age of five with a disability or chronic illness. Cholera, chicken pox, and diphtheria have broken out in the camp and there is high number of existing respiratory infections — 174,000 since January 2020 — leaving those affected extremely vulnerable to this novel coronavirus.

Concern has been operating in the camps since the mass arrival of refugees from Myanmar in 2017, providing nutrition services, food distributions, and support to health centers. A nationwide shutdown imposed by the Government has been extended to May 16th, in an attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19.

A handwashing station outside a Concern clinic. Photo: AKM Jakaria / Concern Worldwide

What is Concern doing?

Concern’s Regional Director for Asia, Lucia Ennis, explains that the key focus at present is to ensure the safety of staff and ensure that Concern’s operations do not contribute to the spread of the disease. “The main focus is to ‘do no harm’. We’re totally committed to our humanitarian mandate but have also directed staff to honor the restrictions put in place by the government,” she said.

Double rations — enough to last an extra month — were distributed in advance of the shutdown and food stocks have been pre-positioned for distribution by Concern’s volunteer network within the camp, should restrictions continue for a longer period.

Uzair*, a Rohingya Volunteer, helping to distribute double food rations. Photo: AKM Jakaria / Concern Worldwide *Name changed for security reasons

Tackling fake news

Misinformation is widespread and dangerous, with wild rumors causing panic among a long-marginalized population with little knowledge of public health. The Concern team has been working to make sure that those living in the camps have the facts about how the virus is spread and it’s effects, using nearly 250 trained Rohingya volunteers. For now, they are the frontline defenders against the virus.

As the shutdown continues and clinics remain shuttered, the danger of a rise in acute malnutrition levels among children is very real, meaning more work ahead for the nutrition teams once access is restored.