10 ICU beds for 1.2 million: COVID-19 catastrophe looms in Cox’s Bazar

16 APRIL 2020

Fear is spreading through the world’s largest refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, as a potentially devastating COVID-19 catastrophe looms.

Director of Programmes in Cox’s Bazar for Plan International Bangladesh, Mohammed Riyas, said the medical capacity to treat COVID-19 patients in Cox’s Bazar, currently hosting close to one million Rohingya refugees, is extremely limited.

They’ve already suffered through a war, they are not ready to face another challenge like this.

As the township of Cox’s Bazar is now under lockdown, only essential services including provision of food, hygiene information, water and latrines and medical assistance are permitted in the Rohingya camp. Schools have closed indefinitely. Although there have been no confirmed cases within the camp so far, experts believe it is only a matter of time. 

“People in the Rohingya camps are living in fear about what they are going to do if there is a big outbreak. That fear is very real. They’ve already suffered through a war, they are not ready to face another challenge like this,” said Mr Riyas. 

Mr Riyas said there was one testing facility in Cox’s Bazar, one isolation space in the Rohingya camp and one local hospital with just 10 Intensive care beds, although the Bangladeshi Government and humanitarian agencies are working to increase this capacity.

Social distancing not an option in the camp

“We are talking about one of the world’s biggest and most densely populated refugee camps with 40,000 people per square kilometre. Social distancing is something you cannot do. Social distancing is a luxury. Here in the camp, it’s very difficult. The best chance we have is to make sure we keep the number of cases at zero.”

Plan International is raising €100 million to protect some of the world’s most vulnerable children and their communities from the impacts of COVID-19. The organisation’s response, covering at least 50 countries including Bangladesh, is focused on assisting children, particularly girls, who are disproportionately affected by the crisis.

If COVID-19 is widespread, humanitarian operations might reduce or stop for fear of spreading infection.

The organisation’s humanitarian staff are travelling to the refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar on a daily basis to run COVID-19 information sessions, to ensure water, hygiene and sanitation facilities are operations and to continue child protection work. They wear personal protective equipment, follow strict hand-washing and social distancing protocols and undergo routine temperature checks to ensure the safety of the camp’s inhabitants. 

Mr Riyas fears a significant outbreak in the camp would see these essential services shut down altogether.

“In the camp, if COVID-19 is widespread it’s going to be very difficult, as humanitarian operations might reduce or stop for fear of spreading the infection. This means essential services might have to cease, like provision of food and maintaining the water supply,” he said. 

“We also strongly believe that education has been severely affected by COVID-19 and we need to work with government communities to restore education and assist communities to get back to school. The online learning option is not available for these children, so we need to find other ways to ensure their education is not disrupted.”

Information will save lives

Information sharing to counter fear and provide medical advice is a huge challenge as the camps do not have reliable or widespread internet coverage. 

Today, a coalition of 26 aid and humanitarian organisations in Bangladesh, including Plan International, have issued an open letter urging the Bangladeshi and Myanmar Governments to provide reliable internet coverage for the camp, as lack of information fuels fear and panic.

“The messages the refugees are getting about COVID-19 are limited to what they receive from the government and humanitarian agencies. Internet access is not available in the camp, so there’s no TV, no radio, no internet and that is very difficult because the lack of information can cause panic,” Mr Riyas added.

“Women and girls are especially vulnerable because the information is less likely to reach them. We need to make sure the information goes to men and women equally. Information will save lives.”