The novel coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic has forced employers to ask their employees to work from home in order to contain the quick spread of the disease which has symptoms similar to influenza. While researchers are busy researching vaccines, and medical sectors around the world are facing shortages of protective clothing and masks, refugees seem to be the world’s most forgotten group.
Social Distancing? No Chance
Refugees in refugee camps can hardly do physical distancing (an order to keep distance to a minimum of two meters), given the camps’ crowded situation. Hand sanitizers are a luxury for refugees. No water and no soap to wash their hands is a daily reality. Khaled Abdul Razaq al-Dasher, a Syrian refugee in Lebanon, shares a tent with his nine family members; all are refugees who escaped from the nine-year civil war in Syria.
According to Sahar Tawfeeq, spokesperson for the International Red Cross in Iraq, physical and social distancing is a privilege refugees don’t have. As the hashtag #Stayathome is going viral, the displaced cannot do that as they no longer have a place to call home.
The United Nations and other organizations are facing a tough task to protect 70 million refugees across the globe from the Covid-19, which has infected over 740,000 worldwide and killed more than 35,000. In the Middle East, millions of people have been forced to seek refuge because of the Syrian war or other conflicts. They have to stay either in a crowded tent and an unfinished building. They are far from the world’s only refugees, either.
Rohingya Refugees in Bangladesh Highly Vulnerable to Covid-19
Poor condition in refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, make Rohingya Muslims particularly vulnerable to Covid-19 infection. The Kutapalong camp, for example, is home to 600,000 Rohingya Muslims — one of the most persecuted minorities in the world — who are not recognized as citizens of Myanmar.
Face masks and hand sanitizers can hardly be seen in those shelters. Each makeshift camp is home to 10 to12 people, making it challenging to follow physical distancing which the World Health Organization (WHO) recommends.
One aid worker said that refugees can hear each other’s breathing the conditions are so crowded. The fear of Covid-19 spreading is increasing in Cox’s Bazar after a Rohingya family was placed under quarantine after returning from India.
What Happens if a Refugee Gets Covid-19?
Should a refugee be infected with COVID-19, experts warned that there is no proper health facility in the Kutapalong camp. As a consequence, the infected patients must be admitted to a hospital in Cox’s Bazar, making the situation more complicated since refugees are not allowed to leave camps.
Rohingyas Kept in the Dark About Covid-19
Many Rohingya seeking refuge in Bangladesh admitted they did now know much about Covid-19 due to Dhaka’s decision to cut internet access in September 2019.
Community leader Sayed Ullah stated that Rohingya Muslims only knew that the coronavirus had killed many people. Still, they had no idea about what the symptoms are, and other information related to the pandemic due to the internet access ban.
As of March 30, Bangladesh has reported 49 cases of Covid-19 infection with five deaths. Bangladesh had imposed a lockdown on 34 refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar as an effort to contain the spread of the virus.
“Since this morning [Wednesday] we have started lockdown in all Rohingya camps as per guidelines issued by the government due to the prevailing scare over coronavirus outbreak,” said Mahbub Alam Talukder, Bangladesh’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner.
Access to Healthcare is a Priority
Ann Burton, Chief of UNHCR’s Public Health Section, described how dangerous the novel coronavirus is to the most vulnerable groups such as refugees and illegal immigrants, adding that the UN refugee agency is trying its best to improve sanitation to refugee’s camps.
“We have stockpiled supplies, including personal protective equipment (PPE) for health staff. We are purchasing disinfectant, supplies to manage medical waste, laboratory supplies, pharmaceuticals and medical equipment for case management,” Burton said, adding that “we have improved WASH [water, sanitation and hygiene] conditions and prepared isolation facilities in select camps and settlements.”