Diseases like coronavirus pose a big risk to refugees. But proper handwashing practices can help keep the threat in check.
COX’S BAZAR, Bangladesh – Around the world, communities have been taking precautions to help slow the spread of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) and keep their families safe, including by practising physical distancing.
But for the more than 850,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar living in cramped conditions in what is effectively the world’s largest refugee camp, keeping some distance from other members of the community is easier said than done. Many refugees live in flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin shelters where the dangers of everyday life remain all too real, including the high risk of the spread of infectious diseases.
This doesn’t mean that there aren’t precautions those living in Cox’s Bazar can take to minimize the risk of contracting diseases like COVID-19. In fact, many of the children there have already been doing one of the most important things they can to protect themselves: washing their hands thoroughly and regularly.
Two and a half years ago, Rohingya children arriving in the camps had little or no access to basic water or sanitation facilities. UNICEF and partners moved quickly to establish basic water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) services, helping to contain the risk of a major disease outbreak.
In addition, by the end of 2019, UNICEF had set up around 2,500 learning centres, each equipped with a handwashing station providing soap and clean water, which made it possible to reach hundreds of thousands of Rohingya children with lessons on good health and hygiene – including how to wash their hands properly.
Even though the learning centres have been temporarily shut as a precaution against COVID-19, UNICEF continues to distribute essential supplies through its WASH programme, providing safe water and soap for around 240,000 Rohingya refugees – over half of whom are children.
New threat requires a similar response
The hygiene practices children have learned have become more essential than ever now that the learning centres have been temporarily closed.
So, while children can’t currently attend activities at the learning centres, the techniques they already learned from teachers will continue to play a crucial role in protecting their family members, too.
Nazum is one of those teachers.
“Since I became a teacher 18 months ago, there hasn’t been a single day when I haven’t reminded my students to wash their hands with soap and water,” she says smiling. “It has become a part of their daily routine.”
“I tell children to make sure that they keep their hands clean and to tell their family members to use soap and water. They know that keeping their hands clean will make it less likely they get sick.”
Nazum says that getting children to take turns leading the handwashing demonstrations at the learning centres has given them a sense of responsibility and confidence. It’s a role that nine-year-old Ashrafa seems to have embraced. He says he understands the importance of handwashing – and that he actually enjoys it.
“Handwashing is quite fun,” Ashrafa says. “My teacher taught me how to wash my hands properly, so now I can teach others how to do it.”
A healthy head start
The temporary closure of the learning centres doesn’t mean children’s access to education is on hold. UNICEF is helping teachers, parents and caregivers conduct lessons at home by providing teaching guidelines, workbooks and other learning materials.
Meanwhile, hygiene promotion activities are being scaled up in an effort to reduce the risk posed by COVID-19. And while the rapid spread of the disease around the world poses a genuine risk to vulnerable populations like refugees, the preventative measures and best practices already in place have raised awareness in the community about the importance of handwashing and other measures.
Nazum recognizes that handwashing can be the first line of defense against diseases like COVID-19, and that good hygiene is as an important life skill that needs to be taught in much the same way as traditional school subjects like languages and mathematics.
“Many children didn’t know much about good hygiene practices before,” she says. “They had very little access to education in Myanmar, and some didn’t have soap in their schools or homes.”
“Now, they get to wash their hands regularly,” she says, adding that it has made a big difference to their overall health, too.