Facing COVID-19 in the World’s Largest Refugee Camp, Young Rohingya Help Prepare for an Outbreak

Rohingya volunteers distribute masks and supplies in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Mar. 25, 2020.

Rohingya volunteers distribute masks and supplies in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh on Mar. 25, 2020.

April 27, 2020

Every day, before dawn breaks, a student named Robi wakes up in the world’s largest refugee camp to pray.

Until a few weeks ago, many of those prayers were made at a local mosque, one of the few safe havens for his displaced community of Rohingya Muslims living in Cox’s Bazar, on Bangladesh’s sandy southeast coast. But the mosques and schools are now closed, as the threat of the novel coronavirus creeps closer to this vulnerable, tightly packed group. The first case was confirmed within the local community last month, and the number of cases is growing.

“We’re very much on borrowed time,” said Athena Rayburn, Save the Children’s humanitarian advocacy manager in Cox’s Bazar.

There are around a million displaced people here, and nearly half are children. The majority are Rohingya refugee families from Myanmar who fled their homes after waves of brutal, military-led violence —  an attempt described by both the U.S. and U.N. as “ethnic cleansing” — documented in the FRONTLINE film Myanmar’s Killing Fields. Robi, who was reached by audio call on WhatsApp, asked to be identified by a nickname for fear of reprisals.

“It is very tough in the refugee camp,” said Robi, who is in his late 20s. The district where he lives with his parents and 15-year-old sister is now locked down, he said, with police restricting movement between neighborhoods. “It has become very difficult to even go the market for vegetables,” he said. “People are suffering.”

In late March, in a bid to stem the spread of the virus, the government restricted camp access to the more than 100 aid agencies working there. Now, only frontline workers deemed critical are being allowed in. They’re providing food and some medical aid, Rayburn said, but the services “are not currently sufficient to treat an outbreak.”

Young Rohingya like Robi have been trying to help their community prepare for what’s coming. One day, after praying at home and eating breakfast, he joined a group of young people who had voluntarily assembled blue plastic-wrapped packages of medical supplies, including masks, plastic gloves, soap, antiseptics, and enough fever-fighting medicine to last a week. They bought the supplies using donations from friends, their families and individuals from the aid community who they approached to fund their work.

Walking down dusty laneways, beside low-slung shelters made from plastic tarps and bamboo, Robi and his “boys” carried cardboard boxes of supplies through the camp. They wore latex gloves and their own brightly colored facemasks, handing out packages and fitting masks on older men and women as curious children crowded close.

They’re only a few dozen young men going door-to-door talking about hand washing and social distancing — in an encampment where crossing even one of the 34 makeshift camps can take days. “Hopefully people will trust us and they will follow our instructions,” Robi said. “It is a very important time, and we know that this emergency is the time to come forward to help.” Right now, all they have is information to distribute, as they recently ran out of supplies and funding; Robi says they’re trying to raise more.

Louise Donovan, communications officer for the United Nation’s High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said there are multiple groups of refugees, including more than 2,000 trained volunteers, who are working to prevent widespread COVID-19 within the settlement. “We are very fortunate to work in solidarity with these young refugees, who are doing excellent and admirable work,” she said. “It is a huge joint effort.”

In Cox’s Bazar, there’s no such thing as social distancing. Here, people pack together at an average of 100,000 people per square mile — far closer quarters than on a cruise ship. In these cramped quarters, accessing clean water and proper hygiene can be difficult. “People are very worried and upset,” said Mohammad Arfaat, a 25-year-old Rohingya filmmaker who lives in the camp with his family. “People are living together and sharing toilet you know, water pipe, everything, so if anyone is infected in the camp it will be very harmful.”

The current pandemic has upended life here, uncertain as it already was. Talks to safety resettle the Rohingya in Myanmar have stalled, as countries around the world scramble to contain the novel coronavirus. Learning centers where young children were set to study, using new lesson plans that took aid groups years to negotiate, have been transformed into isolation wards, although so far they remain empty.

One of the Rohingya’s biggest concerns as the lock-down drags on, said Arfaat, will be food. While the World Food Program provides much-needed rations in the camps, such as rice, cooking oil, and split peas, he said, families must buy additional foods like fish, meat, milk and fruit with their own money. “In the market, everything [is] becoming expensive due to coronavirus,” he said. “Refugees don’t have work, so they can’t buy.”

“In the market, everything [is] becoming expensive due to coronavirus. Refugees don’t have work, so they can’t buy.”
Mohammad Arfaat, 25-year-old Rohingya filmmaker

Making the situation even more precarious is the extent to which these camps are cut off from the world. Last September, Bangladesh’s government cut off cellular data in the camps, due to what it said were “security” concerns, severing digital connections between those here and their families abroad. Most here have learned about COVID-19 through word-of-mouth and rumors. Despite awareness efforts in the camps, many Rohingya believe they can only catch the virus if they are “bad Muslims,” said Rayburn, or if they eat a bat.

Aid groups and the UNHCR have long advocated for data services to be restored. The lack of internet connectivity in the camps hurts access to reliable information, said Donovan, and they are continuing to “strongly advocate” with Bangladesh’s government to re-establish connectivity. In the face of an outbreak, digital communication will be essential, both for contact tracing within the tightly packed camps and for combating misinformation.

Daniel Coyle, technical coordinator for the International Organization for Migration in Cox’s Bazar, said it’s been tough for aid groups to earn the Rohingyas’ trust. Harmful rumors — including one that medical workers will kill anyone who has the virus — abound. “Imagine already having had to flee your home because of an intense period of violence and trauma,” he said. “Now isolation facilities are being built, and you’re being asked to separate yourself from your family? I, for sure, would meet that with more fear.”

For his part, Robi is trying to keep us his spirits up, along with those around him. “We have hope, every human being has hope,” he said. “We are not in this world permanently. We are all temporary. So we should come together, collaboratively work together, for peace. It is the best lesson for all the nations.”

Karen Pinchin

Karen Pinchin, Former Tow Journalism Fellow, FRONTLINE/Columbia Journalism Fellowship, FRONTLINE



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