After the first case of Coronavirus was confirmed in Bangladesh's Rohingya refugee camp, the government ordered a complete lockdown, leaving millions at risk.
In our globalized world, a virus so small it cannot be seen has the power to reach every corner of our planet. Whether those corners are in the homes of some of the wealthiest people on earth - or the shanty huts of some of the poorest. What matters, then, is our ability to overcome the illness the virus poses. The latter group isn't too lucky. After all, if a tiny virus can completely cripple the wealthiest nation on the planet, what will it do to the world's poorest and largest refugee settlement? Bangladesh's Cox's Bazar, home to more than a million Rohingya Muslims from Myanmar, confirmed its first case of Coronavirus on March 24, The Washington Post reports. But no one seems to care.
In the refugee settlement, comprising 34 camps, some 40,000 people must share one square kilometer of space. The average density is about 40 times that of the rest of Bangladesh, a close neighbor of India and Myanmar. There is little to no access to healthcare facilities, let alone Coronavirus kits to test all the residents. Hygiene and sanitation, as Mayyu Ali writing for TIME Magazine described it, is nothing short of a luxury - dozens of people are expected to share a single hand-pump and a toilet. "Social distancing, self-isolation, and quarantine are fantasies for Rohingya refugees like me," he shared. "My family of seven lives inside a five-meter (16-foot) tarpaulin structure."
The first positive case of COVID-19 was recorded in the refugee camp on March 24. Now, the deadly virus is expected to spread like wildfire. At present, the camps do not have the capacity to host intensive medical care units and ventilators are simply unavailable. In an attempt to slow down the spread of the disease, the Bangladesh central government imposed a lockdown in the region. Bar some aid workers, no one can step out - or in. To make matters worse, the government slashed access to the internet and confiscated sim cards from those residing in the camps, which makes sharing information about the impending epidemic almost impossible.
Before the pandemic sets in, organizations are doing what they can to prepare the region for what may become the worst public health crisis it has ever faced. In collaboration with the World Health Organization, the government is working on deploying a 200-bed hospital with modern facilities within the settlement. Additionally, a 100-bed isolation ward was recently constructed inside the camps. Just outside the settlement, the United Nations refugee agency is readying 1,200 additional beds. But will this be enough? Probably not. "Our situation is already desperate," Ali affirmed. "And that is before the virus sweeps through the camps."
Efforts are being made to combat the virus within the communities in the refugee camps. Louise Donovan, UNHCR communications officer in Cox’s Bazar, explained, "Communications are ongoing through radio spots, video, posters, leaflets and messages in Rohingya, Burmese, and Bengali languages, explaining how the virus spreads, how people can protect themselves and their families, symptoms, and care-seeking." So far, it seems to be working. Golforaj Begum, a 54-year-old refugee, claimed the organizations working in her area taught her community about social distancing. "They also told us how to maintain our safety," she said. "Such as not to go to other rooms, maintaining a 5-foot distance from one another, not to mix in a crowd, washing hands properly before cooking and eating. They also told us to keep our backyards clean."
Nonetheless, many are aware of the suffering that awaits them. The Rohingya spirit, however, is tougher than a small virus. "The Rohingya spirit is strong; we have overcome so much," Ali affirmed. "We will continue to fight for our rights in Myanmar and in Bangladesh. But for now, we are once again faced with a battle for survival itself. We implore the world to listen to our cries for help." Even after surviving mass rapes, killings, and the burning of their homes, the Rohingya Muslims remain resilient. They just need the world to listen.