Coronavirus News Asia

Covid-19 stalks world’s largest refugee camp

With the first confirmed Covid-19 case, suddenly the gates were shut. The aid workers and vehicles that normally created the daily hum of life at Cox’s Bazar refugee camp, suddenly were all but gone. An eerie silence fell on the biggest refugee camp in the history of mankind.

The newly constructed fence around the camp now looks even taller. These people are trapped with the coronavirus that causes this disease already inside.

This is the nightmare scenario that Rashid, a normally upbeat Rohingya refugee in his 20s, feels every day. He knows that the camp – which more than 800,000 Rohingya refugees have reluctantly called home since they were forced to flee unspeakable violence in Myanmar in 2016 and 2017 – is a trying place to live even under ideal conditions. But the threat of a Covid-19 outbreak has brought a cloud of dread over the people there.

Nearly a million people are packed into single-story bamboo shacks, with up to triple the population density of Manhattan, and no way to leave. Almost no health infrastructure to speak of. No running water. An Internet shutdown and restricted mobile-phone access.

The camps’ narrow arteries and few main thoroughfares are normally clogged with people carrying small children, sacks of rice, bundles of bamboo, LPG canisters. The markets and a smattering of tea stalls, barbershops, poorly stocked pharmacies, and vegetable and fish stands see a brisk trade among the Rohingya that can afford their wares. 

But, mirroring decisions made across Bangladesh and in an effort to slow the spread of Covid-19, Dhaka, the United Nations and humanitarian agencies have locked down the camps and stripped humanitarian assistance down to all but essential health, nutrition, and water and sanitation services. 

With third- and fourth-generation (3G and 4G) Internet access blocked, under the guise of reducing violence and crime in the camps, and Rohingya not legally permitted to own Bangladeshi SIM cards, information about the lockdown has left refugees confused and feeling abandoned by the humanitarian providers they have come to rely on. 

“Foreign-aid workers disappeared,” Rashid said, “and no one understands why.”

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