Editor’s note: The Economist is making some of its most important coverage of the covid-19 pandemic freely available to readers of The Economist Today, our daily newsletter. To receive it, register here. For our coronavirus tracker and more coverage, see our hub
EPIDEMIOLOGISTS AND health workers have long dreaded an outbreak of coronavirus in the world’s refugee camps. Tightly packed, insanitary, with high proportions of poor, under-nourished people, they are the ideal breeding-ground for the disease. On May 14th it came to pass at last, and in the biggest camp of them all, Kutupalong, in Cox’s Bazar, a sliver of land in southern Bangladesh adjacent to Myanmar. Two people tested positive for the virus, one a Rohingya refugee. The next day three more Rohingyas tested positive.
About 1m Rohingyas live in a sprawl of 34 camps near Cox’s Bazar, including Kutupalong. The first two who tested positive were quickly taken off to dedicated isolation and treatment centres within the camps. Soon afterwards 1,275 families, 5,000 people in all, who might have been in contact with the two were placed under complete lockdown.
That such swift and decisive action was taken by the authorities is testimony to the acute anxiety in the camps since the arrival of the novel coronavirus in Bangladesh. The 160m Bangladeshis, living in an extremely densely populated country, are more vulnerable than most to the spread of the virus. The Rohingyas, however, must be among the most vulnerable of all. About 800,000 of them were driven from their homes in Rakhine state in Myanmar by the Burmese army in 2017 for belonging to a Muslim ethnic group. They joined others who had been forced out of Myanmar in the 1990s. The army officers responsible for such a pitiless frenzy of ethnic cleansing have been accused of genocide by the UN.
Arriving in Cox’s Bazar with virtually nothing, the Rohingyas have since been eking out a meagre existence in camps which house 40,000 people per square kilometre. They are twice as densely packed as the passengers and crew of the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship quarantined in a Japanese port in February and on which more than 700 cases were confirmed within a month of the first passenger testing positive. Meanwhile, Bangladesh, Myanmar and the UN squabble over their future. The Bangladeshi authorities are increasingly reluctant hosts and want them to return to Myanmar as soon as possible. The Rohingyas, unsurprisingly, refuse to return until their safety can be guaranteed, which is unlikely to happen, even in the distant future. The UN tries to drum up money from a refugee-weary world to sustain the camps.
Fearing the worst, aid agencies had been preparing for an outbreak of the virus for months. As of the end of March, according to the WHO, 18 treatment and isolation centres had been constructed in the camps, just to treat coronavirus patients, with 72 beds immediately available to patients and a further 257 available at short notice. Given that the Bangladeshi authorities largely cut off mobile-phone and internet coverage in the camps last year, NGOs have been going through the camp with megaphones, going shelter to shelter, to get out messages about the need for social distancing, hygiene and handwashing. Caritas Bangladesh, for example, recruited 186 volunteers to raise awareness about the coronavirus; the WHO has been training aid workers in the clinical management of the disease.
For some time now the camps have been increasingly isolated from the local Bangladeshi population, surrounded by ever more barbed wire and police posts. This has been keenly felt, and largely resented, by the dispirited Rohingyas. But, as Ram Das, CARE International’s representative in Cox’s Bazar, points out, this had actually served them well against coronavirus; although the number of infections had increased in Cox’s Bazar in general, the camps had escaped. Until now.
There is very limited testing and it is now a race against time to contain the outbreak before it sweeps through the camps. Hearsay and disinformation about the disease travel even faster, making it hard for health workers to trace those who might have come into contact with those infected. One rumour is that the virus is a ploy by the Bangladeshi authorities to kill them, or at least get them out of the country.
Nor will the Rohingyas have been reassured by the events of recent days just off the shore. The Bangladeshi Navy has moved about 300 of them to an island called Bhasan Char. These Rohingyas were rescued after fleeing Cox’s Bazar in search of a better life in Malaysia only to spend weeks adrift in rusty old boats in the Bay of Bengal. Having forked out $300m on sprucing up the island, which it claims can take over 100,000 refugees, the Bangladeshi government has spent years trying to coax the Rohingyas there, only to be thwarted by the UN, donors and aid agencies, which have unanimously condemned the tiny, flood-prone spot as unfit for habitation.
Now, however, claiming that the rescued Rohingyas can quarantine there, a push is on to relocate more. One UN worker argues that this amounts to a fait accompli, forcing donors to fund the island whether they like it or not, despite the fact that quarantine facilities are available in the camps. Some call it the “Rohingyan Alcatraz”. The Bangladeshi foreign minister, AK Abdul Momen, has already exposed the quarantine story as a pretext, telling a news agency that “most likely they will remain there until they return to Myanmar.” Alcatraz, coronavirus, or lockdown in a refugee camp: the choices keep worsening for a people that the UN once called “the most persecuted minority in the world”.