By Save The Children

Coronavirus affects us all, and every measure to protect all vulnerable communities must be employed to end this pandemic and ensure that no person is left behind.

The governments of Myanmar and Bangladesh should restore full access to mobile data and telecommunications – including legal access to sim cards for Rohingya refugees – in Cox’s Bazar and Rakhine and Chin states to ensure that refugees, displaced populations, conflict-affected and host-communities can access life-saving information about Covid-19, say 26 international humanitarian agencies.

They argue the restoration of full telecommunications access is essential for efforts to save lives and protect vulnerable communities against the potentially catastrophic impact of Covid-19.

In the Cox’s Bazar refugee camps a population of one million Rohingya refugees, including large numbers of vulnerable women, children, people with disabilities and elderly, are living in cramped conditions with limited options for social distancing and isolation. In Rakhine state, Myanmar, 64,658 people are reported by the state government to be displaced by the ongoing armed conflict in addition to 128,000 people in protracted displacement since 2012.

On both sides of the border, these communities face the same challenges; high population density, limited access to clean water and hygiene materials and a lack of access to quality healthcare with the capacity to test and treat cases of COVID-19. In both Rakhine state and Cox’s Bazar there is a severe shortage of ventilators. These conditions significantly increase the risk of fast transmission and a high mortality rate. In order to protect Bangladeshi, Rohingya and Rakhine communities from the devastating impacts of COVID-19 it is imperative that all necessary actions are taken to prevent widespread transmission.

Current constraints on telecommunications are curtailing efforts to slow transmission and ensure appropriate care. Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar are unable to legally acquire sim cards, and telecommunications operators were directed to restrict internet coverage in Rohingya refugee camps from September 2019. These restrictions also impact surrounding Bangladeshi host communities. In Myanmar, all communities living in nine conflict-affected townships across Rakhine and Chin states, have been without mobile internet access since February 2020, with four townships blocked since April 2019. These restrictions prevent effective communication with the affected populations on hygiene, Covid-19 risks, symptoms and preventative measures, making it much more likely that people will contract and die from the virus.

Effective access to internet and telecommunications channels will ensure that people experiencing Covid-19 symptoms will know when and how to self-isolate and reduce risks of exposure to family, health workers and caregivers. It will also ensure swift coordination for the medical evacuation of any patient needing to be transported to hospitals for intensive care. Additionally, as movement and access for humanitarians to these communities reduces as part of nationwide efforts to stop the spread of coronavirus, the urgent need to provide services remotely to Bangladeshi, Rohingya and Rakhine communities increases. The effective provision of remote hygiene, protection, education and psychosocial support services will not be possible without access to mobile data.

We urge the governments of Bangladesh and Myanmar to re-establish internet and telecommunications channels. As stated by UNHCR in Bangladesh: “Communication is key to the timely and effective management of this situation, mobile data communications restrictions in the Rohingya refugee camps should be lifted.” 

Countries that have successfully started to contain Covid-19, have been able to do because people have had access to up to date, scientific evidence and information, in real-time. Coronavirus affects us all, and every measure to protect all vulnerable communities must be employed to end this pandemic and ensure that no person is left behind.