In the summer and fall of 2017, the Myanmar military launched a campaign of terror against the ethnic group known as the Rohingya, driving some 700,000 of them across the border into neighboring Bangladesh. Myanmar’s predominantly Buddhist ruling elite has long discriminated against the Muslim Rohingya, treating them as a nefarious alien presence in the country’s midst even though most have lived there for generations. Periodic waves of persecution had already sent many Rohingya fleeing across the border in the decades before the 2017 atrocities began.
Today, 850,000 Rohingya are living in conditions of unimaginable hardship in refugee camps in Bangladesh. Crammed together in tiny makeshift shelters made of bamboo and plastic, many of the refugees already suffer from poor nutrition, compromised immune systems and lung illnesses. Last week, testing revealed a person infected with the coronavirus in the town of Cox’s Bazaar, just a few miles from the camps.
Humanitarian groups are sounding the alarm. The International Rescue Committee, a charitable group, has just released a study warning that any covid-19 infections in refugee camps around the world, and particularly those inhabited by the Rohingya, would almost certainly spread far faster than on the notorious Diamond Princess cruise ship.
The discovery of that first covid-19 case near the camps prompted the authorities in Bangladesh — itself one of the most impoverished countries in the world, making it poorly equipped to deal with any outbreaks — to order a “lockdown” in the camps on March 25. Yet the term feels like a mockery in such cramped conditions. Extended families, usually 10 to 15 people, live together in huts where there’s just enough room for everyone to lie down. Multiple households share water sources and latrines. The inhabitants have to line up for food and medical treatment, thus increasing their exposure to disease.
Thomas Lee, a physician at UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles and the founder of Community Partners International, one of the aid groups helping to maintain health care for the refugees, explains that “flattening the curve” — managing the number of infected patients applying for treatment — will be a far greater challenge in an environment where there already aren’t enough resources to go around. “There are just a few hundred hospital beds with a population of nearly a million people,” he says, adding that many residents already suffer from pneumonia and other respiratory ailments, heightening their vulnerability to the coronavirus.
To make matters worse, the Bangladesh authorities decided back in September to shut down mobile Internet access to the camps, effectively cutting off the refugees from desperately needed health information, one of the most important tools in combating pandemics. “Various different Rohingya civil society groups have been working hard on spreading awareness,” says Yasmin Ullah of the Rohingya Human Rights Network, who visited the camps at the end of February. “But you have to pick community members who can spread the information — and that requires a meeting. You have to go door to door.” That’s not exactly conducive to social distancing.
Tun Khin, of the Burmese Rohingya Organization UK, told me that he and other activists understand perfectly well that Bangladesh will have to prioritize its own citizens with its limited resources: “But at least they could lift all the restrictions and bureaucracy that stop international and domestic agencies doing what they can to prepare for when the virus hits the camps.” Lifting the Internet blackout in the camps is one of the first things the government could do.
It’s not like the Rohingya haven’t suffered enough already. The refugees, almost all of whom lost friends and family during the horrors of 2017, live with lingering trauma. According to United Nations investigators, Rohingya women suffered widespread sexual violence at the hands of the soldiers — and many still fear sexual abuse in the refugee camps, where there is little semblance of law and order. Now they have to face a new and unseen enemy.
Ullah worries that matters might be even worse for the some 600,00 Rohingya who stayed back home in Myanmar. There’s little scrutiny from the international community there, since the government tightly controls access to the region. “It’s very scary there,” says Ullah. “It’s closed down, closed off from the rest of the world.”
Small wonder that the Rohingya feel exposed to the havoc now likely to be unleashed upon them by the coronavirus. “First, the international community did nothing to prevent genocide against us,” says Tun Khin. “Then they did not provide enough aid for the million-plus refugees forced to flee genocide. Now they once again do nothing as Rohingya refugees face a virus that could kill as many of us as the Burma military have.”