Over 10 lakh Rohingya people living in extremely congested refugee camps in Cox's Bazar are facing a greater risk of rapid transmission of the novel coronavirus due to inadequate health facilities.
Already 38 cases of Covid-19 infections, including two deaths, have been reported in the camps, according to the office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC). Currently, 945 Rohingya refugees are under quarantine.
"Rohingya refugees are highly vulnerable to Covid-19 because of the health risks associated with displacement, overcrowding, increased climatic exposure due to sub-standard shelter and poor nutritional and health status among affected populations," Dr Ranjan Roy, a teacher of Sher-e-Bangla Agricultural University, stated in his recent article in The Business Standard.
"These conditions weaken refugees' immune systems, rendering them susceptible to a range of other infections," he maintained.
"Two of the most effective precautionary measures against Covid-19 – social distancing and hand-washing – are extremely difficult to implement in camps and settlements, where space, shelter, soap and clean water are often in short supply," he added.
Meanwhile, the Inter Sector Coordination Group (ISCG), which coordinates the activities of United Nations agencies and local, national and international NGOs, in a recent statement said, "Rohingya communities face an even greater risk of rapid transmission of the virus, due to the limited health infrastructure available and in light of the congested conditions in which they live, in one of the most densely populated camps in the world."
Participating in a seminar on Thursday, two days ahead of World Refugee Day on June 20 (Saturday), experts, local public representatives and other people concerned urged the Bangladesh government to take comprehensive measures to prevent a coronavirus outbreak in Rohingya camps and in the host community in Cox's Bazar.
Rashed Mohammad Ali, chairman of Hnila Union of Teknaf, told the seminar that Rohingya people can easily come out of their camps and mingle with local people as there is no barbed wire fence around the camps. This has increased the risk of a spread of the virus.
Disaster management expert Abdul Latif said, "The livelihoods of local people in Cox's Bazar are highly affected by Covid-19. Therefore, not only the Rohingyas but also the local community have to be engaged with the whole process of a Covid-19 response."
The virtual seminar, "Covid-19 pandemic and Rohingya crisis", was organised by COAST Trust, a national non-government organisation (NGO), ahead of World Refugee Day.
Meanwhile, government authorities said they have taken adequate measures in this regard.
Mahbub Alam Talukder, refugee relief and repatriation commissioner in Cox's Bazar, told the seminar, "The death of two Rohingyas from the coronavirus had us worried in the first place. However, we have so far been successful in keeping the camps secure.
"Some 230 isolation beds have been made ready for coronavirus patients so far. A 1,900-bed hospital will be built soon."
The RRRC commissioner continued, "We quarantined the infected Rohingya people's family members and others who had come in contact with them. We have prepared isolation beds for them."
Only emergency services, such as health, nutrition, food, and cooking fuel distribution, hygiene promotion, water and sanitation programmes and the quarantine of new arrivals, among other services, are being delivered in the camps at present, he added.
The seminar was moderated by Rezaul Karim Chowdhury, executive director of COAST Trust. It was presided over by Hamidul Haque Chowdhury, chairman of Ukhia upazila parishad.
Among others, Nikar Uz Zaman, upazila nirbahi officer of Ukhia, Subrata Kumar Chakraborty, livelihood officer of the UNHCR, Abu Morshed Chowdhury, president of Cox's Bazar Chamber of Commerce and Nayeem Gowhar Wara of Disaster Forum also spoke at the seminar.
Since August 25, 2017, more than 7 lakh Rohingya refugees have fled Myanmar to Bangladesh. They joined around 3 lakh Rohingyas who had fled to the country years earlier.
World Refugee Day is observed every year at the behest of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). This year the day will be observed on the theme "Everyone can make a difference, every action counts".