The impact of Cyclone Amphan on Cox's Bazar
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Coronavirus arrives in Rohingya refugee settlement

First cases test Bangladesh preparations

The importance of UNHCR’s urgent prevention efforts was highlighted in mid-May as the first cases arose in Cox’s Bazar, home to 860,000 Rohingya refugees fleeing persecution in Myanmar.

The growing number of confirmed cases among refugees and the host community have put a spotlight on UNHCR’s efforts to prepare for and prevent an emergency.

“We live in very small houses with too many people,” says Rohingya refugee Saidul Hoque, who was born at the camp well before the majority of residents arrived during the 2017 exodus.

In some parts of the settlement, 40,000 people inhabit one square kilometre, 100 times denser than Australian cities such as Adelaide or Sydney.

“Seven members of my family are sharing an 8 by 10-foot shelter. Everyone is asking us to maintain social distance, but how can we? It’s totally impossible for us,” says Saidul.

But since March, thanks to money raised in Australia and elsewhere, UNHCR been putting measures in place in case coronavirus reached the crowded Cox’s Bazar Rohingya settlement in Bangladesh.

Saidul Hoque is making videos in the Rohingya language to teach refugees about the coronavirus
Saidul Hoque is a Rohingya refugee living in Cox’s Bazar, living in a small shelter with his family. © UNHCR / S. Hoque

Almost 55,000 gowns and personal protective coveralls have arrived at the UNHCR warehouse for distribution to frontline health workers. Isolation clinics have been built from scratch, and health staff in all camp clinics, plus 2,000 refugee volunteers, have received appropriate training.

The volunteers work in the camps to ensure other refugees, including Imams and community leaders, are well-informed about coronavirus and its prevention.

There are also radio spots, videos and posters in Rohingya, Burmese and Bengali explaining how the virus spreads and how people can protect each other.

At the time of writing, around 30 cases had been detected among the refugees, alongside hundreds more members of the host community.

To make matters worse, the monsoon season has begun. Though a major tropical cyclone missed the camps on 21 May, forthcoming heavy rains are likely to compromise health, hygiene, shelter and social distancing even more.

Given the overcrowded conditions, the coronavirus prevention measures now being tested for real may prove critical in saving lives.

The impact of Cyclone Amphan on Cox's Bazar
The effects of Cyclone Amphan in Kutupalong camp, Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. At least 90 refugee families (400 people) lost their shelters, while hundreds more shelters were partially damaged. Affected families are staying with relatives or in safe havens, while repair works are underway. UNHCR is assisting but hygiene and social distancing will be hard. © UNHCR/Sanchez Pineiro

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