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【Bangladesh】Third Year Mark of the Rohingya Refugee Influx to Bangladesh-Humanitarian Response in the Time of COVID-19 Outbreak

25 August 2020 marks three years since the largest exodus of Rohingya refugees to Bangladesh. Around 860,000 Rohingya refugees who fled from the mass violence in Myanmar are still displaced in Cox’s Bazar district in Bangladesh, where one of the world’s largest refugee camps has been formed.

Rohingya refugee camp

Many parts of the world are suffering from coronavirus disease (COVID-19), and the Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh are no exception. With poor sanitation and dense populations, there is a high risk of the rapid spread of the disease in the camp area, and to make matters worse the capacity of health care systems is very limited. Since March 2020, when the first case of COVID-19 was recorded in Bangladesh, the entry into the camp area has been severely restricted to prevent the spread of the virus, and even humanitarian assistance has had to be limited to life-saving activities.

Peace Winds Japan (PWJ) has been working for Rohingya refugees and host communities to improve their access to basic healthcare services, particularly maternal and child healthcare, and these activities were requested to be continued by the Bangladeshi authority even during the COVID-19 outbreak. However, we cannot and should not just go about our business as usual. For example, PWJ used to conduct awareness-raising activities in shelters and learning centers with multiple participants, where it is difficult to maintain the physical distance from each other. Accordingly, we changed the approach of awareness-raising activities to individual home-visit. Today, PWJ staff delivers the messages regarding maternal and child health, as well as topics related to COVID-19 including infection prevention measures.

In Japan, we can get the latest information from various media such as the internet, television, and newspapers, but in Rohingya refugee camps, refugees have very limited access to information from the outside due to restrictions on their movement and on the internet access in the camp area by the Government of Bangladesh. Some of the refugees are misled by rumors such as “the novel coronavirus doesn’t really exist, but rather the conspiracy of the Government of Bangladesh to kick Rohingya out of Bangladesh” and “the Rohingya do not become seriously ill even if they are infected with the novel coronavirus.” These kinds of rumors may have discouraged Rohingya from taking appropriate precautions. The key to the fight against COVID-19 in refugee camps is the dissemination of knowledge regarding COVID-19 and infection prevention measures through awareness-raising activities.

Awareness-raising activity in the refugee camp

While it is important to prevent the spread of novel coronaviruses in resource-limited settings such as refugee camps, we should not neglect the various issues that have been existing since before. For example, the number of refugees who receive antenatal care or vaccination has temporarily dropped notably across the refugee camps because refugees avoid visiting health facilities, being afraid of getting infected by the novel coronavirus. However, the risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth and vaccine preventable diseases such as measles should not be underestimated. Thus, PWJ has continued its existing activities such as running a clinic and providing maternal and child healthcare services, even during the COVID-19 outbreak.

Doctor’s consultation in the PWJ clinic in the refugee camp

The Rohingya crisis response over the past three years by many humanitarian organisations, including PWJ have improved many aspects of the life of Rohingya and host communities. However, currently, humanitarian assistance has been disturbed by the COVID-19 outbreak. Although many parts of the world are suffering from COVID-19, considering the overall impact of this outbreak, it is the vulnerable people who are most severely affected. PWJ will continue its efforts to protect the health of the Rohingya refugees and host communities.

*This project is made possible by a grant from Japan Platform and donations from individuals and corporations.

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