Tuesday, December 1, 2020 07:49:27 AM
As Bangladesh grapples with an unrelenting coronavirus epidemic, concerns over an explosion of COVID-19 cases in the densely populated Rohingya camps, the largest refugee settlements in the world, have been growing, although the situation remains 'under control’ for now.
Severe outbreaks have been averted so far through the isolation of infected patients and curbs on ‘unnecessary movement’ of local and international aid agencies, according to the government.
“We have taken precautionary measures from day one and cut down unnecessary movement to and from the camps. None of the infected patients can enter the camps. That is why the situation is still under control,” Foreign Minister AK Abdul Momen told bdnews24.com.
“Though we’re not sure how long we can maintain it, as many people are trying to enter the camps secretly.”
More than 1.1 million Rohingyas are living in the camps covering nearly 6,000 acres of land in Cox's Bazar, Teknaf and Ukhiya. If left unchecked, the spread of novel coronavirus could turn into a major catastrophe, the international community has warned.
Bangladesh detected its first case of COVID-19 on Mar 8. Just over a month later, the first COVID-19 patient was identified in a Rohingya camp in Cox’s Bazar.
The number of coronavirus cases among Rohingya refugees has since risen to 46 with a death toll of four until Jun 19. On the other hand, 1,925 virus cases have been reported in Cox’s Bazar district, already marked as a red zone.
Despite the Rohingya camps being under lockdown since Mar 11, new cases of the coronavirus infection have still been reported. Only NGO programmes involving the supply of water, sanitation and food are allowed to continue in the camps.
“It’s a place with a population equivalent to Bhutan and yet the infection is under control. However, it can’t be said how long this will be maintained,” said Prof Imtiaz Ahmed of Dhaka University's International Relations Department.
He urged the government and the international community to ensure that the issue of repatriating the Rohingya refugees to their homeland does not get overshadowed by the epidemic.
“The coronavirus situation is still under control in the camps though it has deteriorated in other parts of the country. However, it is still uncertain how long this will remain the case,” Ram Das, deputy country director of CARE Bangladesh, said in a recent media briefing.
The joint initiative by the government and the international donor community has helped bridle the spread of the virus in the camps so far, he added.
FEAR IN CAMPS
However, senior figures in the Rohingya refugee community believe that the low infection rate could be attributed to a small number of tests conducted in the camps.
Most Rohingya people are scared of taking the test for the coronavirus, said Mohammed Nur, resident of West-1 camp in Kutupalong.
“Many of them are scared that they’ll be isolated from their families if they are diagnosed with the novel coronavirus. They fear they’ll be sent to Bhashanchar.”
Dr Toha Bhuiyan, health coordinator of Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation, acknowledged that fear of testing could be an issue among the refugees. On average, 10 reports of coronavirus tests are available every day in the camps, he said.
“We heard about their fear of tests but they don’t mention it in front of the doctors.”
He said the authorities are expanding the testing programme in the camps.
“We’ll get the real picture when more tests are done. Different measures have been taken involving the leaders, imams and locals to create awareness and encourage them to get tested. The campaign is working,” said Dr Toha.
Among the 452 people tested in the camps, 46 returned positive results while four have died. At least 32 refugees are quarantined in isolation centres and others are receiving treatment. Three of them have recovered already, he said.
“There was a problem in the lab which delayed the delivery of test reports. But sample collections have increased now and we’re getting a test result within 24 hours.”
More Rohingyas will take the test if they can be convinced that they won't be sent to Bhasanchar if they test positive for COVID-19, according to Dr Toha.
Rohingyas should not be afraid of testing as family members or those who come into contact with a patient are identified and sent to the quarantine centre only, said Refugee Relief and Rehabilitation Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukdar.
“Around 800 people have been quarantined as of now and most of them returned to their families in camps after recovery. All the necessary facilities are there, including doctors, nurses and technicians,” he said.
The infection rate and death toll is relatively lower in the camps in comparison to other parts of the country, he said. “It hasn’t reached zero, but it will decrease slowly, we hope.”
There are enough doctors, nurses, isolation units and quarantine centres in place to deal with any situation, according to Mahbub.
A 200-bed treatment centre for acute respiratory infections has been set up inside the camp, while the isolation unit has 184 beds, he said.
Another 1,900 beds will be readied for COVID-19 patients in the refugee camps over the next two weeks, said the official.
INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY UNDER THE SCANNER
It has been two and a half years since more than 700,000 Rohingyas fled to Bangladesh in the face of persecution by the Myanmar military in their native Rakhine State. However, Myanmar is yet to repatriate any displaced Rohingya.
Two attempts to repatriate the refugees proved fallen flat so far due to the purported failure to create of “proper environment’ for their return home.
Rohingyas are living an inhuman and uncertain life in shacks at the makeshift camps in Cox’s Bazar. To make matters worse, they now have to live in fear of the coronavirus epidemic. The plight of the Rohingya was high on the international agenda again on World Refugee Day this year.
Foreign Minister Momen has highlighted the lack of a meaningful intervention by the international community for the delay in the repatriation process.
“Myanmar has not taken back a single Rohingya in the last three years despite their promises. They have failed to fulfil the conditions of repatriating them with safety, security and dignity while creating a proper atmosphere for their return. Although there are no conflicts in other parts of Myanmar, the Rakhine state is still plagued by conflict,” he said.
He continued: “Those who talk about human rights, have seen Myanmar defying it, but continued to invest there. The European Union, the US and Japan -- every country has doubled its investment."
The Myanmar government is trying to drive out the Rohingya people who are still living there, instead of creating a proper environment to repatriate the refugees, said Imtiaz.
“This is unacceptable. China, India and other countries who are friendly with Myanmar should play an important role to resolve it, but we don’t see any such initiative.”
Additional reporting from Senior Correspondent Moinul Haque Chowdhury
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