How the past three years have transformed a 27-year-old, Ro Yassin Abdumonab, a Rohingya refugee at Balukhali camp in Cox’s Bazar District, Bangladesh? The answer denotes no bitter-end from a victim of “a textbook example of ethnic cleansing” in his motherland Myanmar in 2017 to prey of the coronavirus pandemic in the world’s largest refugee settlements now. Still, there is resilience amid a moment of peril.

This pandemic COVID-19 is now across the whole world. We Rohingya people first heard about it and got scared and panicked about its outbreak here, referring to the first case in Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps detected on May 14. Let’s stand together to fight against Covid19 as it will make huge losses and disaster if we don’t try to stop it, the camp resident and freelancer documenting Rohingya lives, also appealed via twitter on May 15. It’s never easy and entails joint efforts and global response to save Rohingya from the pandemic in the District, home to nearly two million locals and one million Rohingya refugees.

The Kutupalong refugee camp. Credit: Saleh Ahmed

A breeding ground for the virus

The social distancing measures a golden rule across the planet seems far from being feasible in the tightly packed and insanitary Rohingya refugee camps with high proportions of malnutrition of people, which is an ideal breeding ground for the virus. Statistically, over 40,000 people reside in plastic shacks side by side each square kilometer, over 40 times Bangladesh’s average population density and each shack is barely 10 square meters and crowded with up to 12 residents. In dense camps of Cox’s Bazar, options for social distance or self-isolation are almost impossible and unthinkable.

Besides, novel and untested strategies may need to be tried accordingly by the Bangladeshi government and aid groups particularly in trying to protect the camps which are most vulnerable, including more than 30,000 people older than 60, according to Paul Spiegel, director of the Center for Humanitarian Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in America in an interview with The New Humanitarian. He, for example, mentioned “segmentation”, “which would see sections of the camp cordoned off when coronavirus infections are reported.

A view of Balukhali Rohingya refugee camp. Credit: Mahmud Hossain Opu

A lockdown directive

Part and parcel of the effort to halt the coronavirus spread, a lockdown directive has been issued by the Bangladesh Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC) on April 8. Since then, only critical services and facilities have been allowed to run inside the Rohingya refugee camps, and the access for humanitarian workers reduced by 80%. Ram Das, deputy country director of Humanitarian Program at CARE Bangladesh, said in an interview with The Economist that this had enabled Rohingya refugees to fight well against coronavirus although the number of infections had increased in Cox’s Bazar in general, the camps had escaped.

There is little space to practice physical distancing / Credit: Syed Zakir Hossain

As of June 2, there has been one death from COVID-19 and at least 29 confirmed cases in the Rohingya refugee camps, among a total of 798 detected ones in the District, according to the Institute of Epidemiology, Disease Control and Research, Bangladesh. Yet the lockdown measures have also put the refugees in a dilemma of necessity shortages and a lack of medical aids and protective equipment.

The crisis here is that one million Refugees are not getting proper facilities like before because some of the NGOs have left the camps. Many Refugees become workless inside the camps so they can’t support their families as well. For many Rohingya girls and women, in particular, locked inside and out of sight can lead to far more predicaments and danger. ‘It’s a hard situation for girls and women because we need our monthly hygiene things and girls can’t say to others because they are mostly shy,’ said Shamima Bibi, founder & director of Rohingya Women’s Education Initiative in the camps.

What’s worse, an increased risk of gender-based violence and trafficking cases has also gained momentum when mounting deprivations, piling stress, and fracturing social support systems emerge in the coronavirus crisis. ‘In the trafficking case for example, because of the lockdown, if the traffickers, usually a mixture of government authorities, local Bangladeshi people and even some from their community come to lure the girls, nobody knows’ Sabber Kyaw Min said.

Still, for Shamima Bibi and her organization, giving awareness to Rohingya girls and women, and motivating them to come at the frontline of the COVID-19 response is their top priority. ‘In this hard and worse time, we went and met many girls and women door to door and shared them about the COVID19 and many other sensitive issues. We told them this virus is not only in our camp but all around the world. The world is fighting with it then why can’t we do so?’ she said. She also added, her team is also producing protective masks for the community to help combat the virus.

Credit: AP Photo/Shafiqur Rahman

An internet blackout

Then the dangers posed by an internet cut-off since September 2019 have added insult to injury beyond the coronavirus itself, blocking Rohingya refugees from accessing life-saving information amid the crisis moment. The internet was our teacher and websites were our schools and colleges. But now there is a cut-off on the Internet, so we are just living in darkness in the era of information and technology, feeling helpless and hopeless.

Bangladesh Home Minister Asaduzzaman Khan, however, in a recent interview with Anadolu Agency, ensured the availability of mobile and internet networks in camps yet within a limited dimension ‘just to curb camps-based crimes’. We need to go to some places where we can get a slow 2G connection, mostly on the top of a hill inside the camps, referring to the limited dimension.

Rumors have also followed hard on the heels of lacking knowledge and information. “People believe this coronavirus comes and goes like a cough. They don’t take it seriously,” Sabber Kyaw Min said. We have also heard that if someone has a cough and approaches to the health center now, without further consultations, he or she will be taken away,” he added. Still, Rohingya volunteers and rights groups have risen to the occasion. In my docuseries posted on twitter, I have been documenting people working for the community to prevent COVID-19, teaching each other about proper hand-washing and social distancing, making educational videos, and working with aid agencies to build isolation and quarantine shelters, etc.

View of the sprawling Kutupalong refugee camp near Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Credit: UK DFID

For me, to hope and stay strong is an antidote to those unexpected amid coronavirus. It is also fully displayed in my poetry, a channel enabling the world community to ‘Hear our voices and understand what has happened to us’.

Spread hope instead of fear. Corona is just a virus

Do the daily thing to support your immune system and maintain proper hygiene. Don’t live in fear, live your life peacefully. Enjoy your rights, avoid negativity, be positive, help the needy one, and don’t stay in fear.

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