First COVID-19 case in Rohingya camp could potentially lead to an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, warns CARE

Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, May 14, 2020. The first COVID-19 case in the Rohingya camp of Cox’s Bazar could potentially lead to thousands of new infections; putting the world’s largest refugee camp on the brink of a humanitarian catastrophe. Today, one ethnic Rohingya individual has been tested COVID-19 positive in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh.

More than 850,000 ethnic Rohingyas who fled from neighboring Myanmar now live in flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin shelters across 34 overcrowded camps in Teknaf and Ukhiya sub-districts in Cox’s Bazar. Susceptible living conditions, lack of basic amenities, and poor facility make people’s lives more vulnerable, especially that of women and girls.

With the discovery of the first COVID-19 case, health needs are now immense for the refugees. Apart from PPE and sanitizers for frontline workers; handwashing and laundry soap are needed for the refugee community in large quantity while women and girls also require hygiene kits and dignity kits. Given the family roles and responsibility e.g. fetching water, washing and cooking, taking care of unwell family members, women and girls are especially vulnerable and they particularly require health and Sexual and Reproductive Health and Rights (SRHR) services. Moreover, mass awareness among Rohingya population on prevention, social distancing and identification of symptoms is required. In order to prevent spreading, large number of isolation rooms inside the camps are urgently required as well.

Deepmala Mahla, Asia Regional Director of CARE USA, said:

We are deeply concerned but sadly, not surprised. We have been vigilant since the onslaught of the outbreak in Bangladesh and took necessary measures to stop the outbreak and prepare the refugee and host communities accordingly. Now it is at our doorstep. The camps are overcrowded with inadequate hygiene and sanitary facilities, and frail health systems; and it calls for concerted efforts from all concerned to contain the spread including awareness generation, hygiene and sanitary facilities, increased testing, contact tracing, isolation, medical care and continuation of essential services. This confirmation of the first COVID-19 case is a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are, with almost 1 million people being at risk of infection. This is precisely the time to join forces to do everything possible to stop the spread and protect the people in Cox’s Bazar camps who have already suffered from unspeakable traumas. We urge the international community to provide generous financial support to NGOs working in Bangladesh and the government of Bangladesh to triumph over this crisis. The world can only be safe, when each one of us is safe.

Ram Das, Deputy Country Director – Humanitarian Response of CARE Bangladesh, said:

Given the first positive COVID-19 case in the camps, we are deeply concerned and feel this could have potential huge risks for others in the community as well as for all frontline workers. The cramped and overcrowded camps with unsanitary living conditions and poor basic health facilities are the potential quick triggers for the rapid spread of the infection. The camps have a 40,000 person per square km density, almost four times that of New York City. This has made our task to contain the spread even more challenging. We are stepping up our response in various ways. We are ensuring strict monitoring of entry and exit into and from the camps that we, as CARE Bangladesh, manage.

We urge all those entering the camps must wear PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), need to be properly sanitized and symptoms monitored. Public messages are being broadcast to stop people from crowding common facilities. Community members are being asked to report any symptoms immediately either to the camp management or to government authorities. The health authorities are screening others in the camp who might have had contact with the COVID-19 infected person.

The population density in the camps, inadequate knowledge about prevention and limited access to medical facilities make the refugees especially vulnerable to COVID-19, this reported case may be a first but the risk of a quick spread of infections is high. Our staff members have worked with community volunteers to educate the Rohingya on appropriate preventative measures including social distancing, avoiding gatherings, staying at home, wearing a mask outside their houses and washing hands regularly. These measures need to be reinforced for all and coordination with community leaders and within women groups in the camps to encourage adherence will be critical. We have already established temporary isolation rooms in each of the three camps we manage. We plan to work with government authorities to scale up isolation services. It is extremely important to develop referral services and increased collaboration with government health services will help save lives.

Walter Mwasaa, Interim Country Director of CARE Bangladesh, added:

The Bangladesh government has been extremely supportive and has committed a significant part of its national resources in ensuring the well-being of the Rohingya. We urge the international community to provide more resources in financing, in kind and other ways to the Bangladesh Government and its UN and civil society partners. More support to Bangladesh who is generously hosting Rohingya refugees is urgently needed in order to step up services for both refugees and local communities at this critical stage of COVID-19 spread.

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