Aid workers are bracing for a possible outbreak of the coronavirus in one of the world’s largest refugee camps in Bangladesh.
Bangladesh authorities announced a complete lockdown on Wednesday after the number of COVID-19 infections in Bangladesh has doubled to more than 200 in the last five days, with 20 dead, with officials warning that containing the disease among more than 1 million tightly packed Rohingya Muslims will be a daunting task.
"Entry and exit from Cox's Bazar district are prohibited from now on," said in a statement Kamal Hossain, the head of Cox's Bazar district, Cox's Bazar on the border with Myanmar, from where the Rohingya have fled a government crackdown. The official also warned that "stern action" would be taken against those who wouldn't respect the lockdown.
"Only emergency food supply and medical services can continue work in the camps by maintaining extreme caution," Refugee Commissioner Mahbub Alam Talukder said, quoted by AFP news agency.
With about 40,000 people per square kilometer living in plastic shacks side by side, which is more than 40 times the average density of Bangladesh, the refugees are dangerously exposed to the virus.
"We are doing our best to protect them, but if the virus breaks out, it will be a tough job for all of us," Mohammad Shamsuddoza, the additional refugee, relief and repatriation commissioner of Bangladesh, told The Associated Press by phone last week.
He said the 34 camps are a significant challenge despite preparations to provide better health care services.
"It's overcrowded, every family has multiple members," he said. "So, this is practically very difficult to keep them separated."
Rachel Wolff, senior director for the aid group World Vision in Cox's Bazar, said: "social distancing is almost impossible for families."
Hossain said foreigners had been banned from frequent visits to the camps unless they are "absolutely necessary."
"They have been instructed to carry on work in a limited scope," he said.
A 100-bed isolation ward was built inside the camps, and another 200-bed hospital with modern facilities is being deployed in cooperation with the World Health Organization, he said.
The U.N. refugee agency said about 1,200 additional beds were being readied just outside the camps at Ukhiya and Teknaf.
Louise Donovan, UNHCR communications officer in Cox's Bazar, said planning was also underway for 1,700 more beds in cooperation with the International Organization for Migration, UNICEF, and Save the Children International.
Donovan said water and soaps are being widely distributed, and thousands of community health workers, including the refugees themselves, were being trained.
Others working in the camps are told to spread awareness about the virus. Mosque imams and local leaders have also been engaged.
"Communications are ongoing through radio spots, video, posters, leaflets and messages in Rohingya, Burmese and Bengali languages, explaining how the virus spreads, how people can protect themselves and their families, symptoms, and care-seeking," Donovan said.
Fear gripped the camps after a 75-year-old Bangladeshi woman in nearby Cox's Bazar town tested positive for the coronavirus. A Rohingya family of four who returned from India recently also was quarantined for 14 days in a U.N. transit camp.
The message is reaching the refugees.
"The organizations working here told us about cough, cold and sore throat being the symptoms of the coronavirus," Golforaj Begum, a 54-year-old refugee, told the A.P. at Kutupalong camp.
"They also told us how to maintain our safety. Such as not to go to other rooms, maintaining a 5-foot distance from one another, not to mix in a crowd, washing hands properly before cooking and eating. They also told us to keep our backyards clean," she said.
The Rohingya had fled Myanmar since August 2017, when Myanmar's military launched counterinsurgency operations in response to rebel attacks. Security forces have been accused of mass rapes, killings and burning thousands of homes.
Myanmar's government has long considered the Rohingya to be migrants from Bangladesh, even though their families have lived in the Buddhist-majority country for generations. Nearly all have been denied citizenship since 1982, effectively rendering them stateless. They are also denied freedom of movement and other fundamental rights, including education.