Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh struggle with fear and stigma amid coronavirus

When Mohammad*, a Rohingya father of four living at a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, was diagnosed with the coronavirus disease, he was not prepared for the challenges his family would face.
As he was being treated at the Kutupalong field hospital, Mohammad’s relatives began facing pressure and threats from the community for wanting to quarantine in their home.
“I started receiving phone calls from the camp majis (community leaders) who were pushing to send my family to a quarantine centre,” he said. “My family said everyone in our block was starting to think badly about them. People were saying that I was Covid-19 positive because I was a bad person.”
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Mohammad, who is in his 30s, said some people even threatened to physically hurt his family.
“People surrounded my house with sticks … saying they would burn our house down if my family didn’t go into quarantine,” he said. “It was so shameful for my family. They felt extremely frightened.”
Aid workers and experts say many Rohingya refugees – who grapple with poverty, long-term health issues and unsanitary conditions at overcrowded refugee camps in Bangladesh – have struggled in recent months with fear and stigma about the coronavirus disease.
Some worry that the number of infections among this community is higher than reported, and warn that a spike could have major consequences.
Last month marked three years since scores of minority Rohingya Muslims and other communities from Myanmar’s Rakhine state were displaced from their homes. There are about 860,000 Rohingya refugees currently housed in Bangladesh camps.
Experts have said the crowded conditions, which sees up to 10 people sharing a room, lack of access to clean water, and flooding caused by heavy rains during monsoon season make Rohingya particularly vulnerable to illness.
Tarikul Islam*, a Bangladesh doctor with Medecins Sans FrontiEres (MSF) and a team leader at the Balukhali hospital, said before the Covid-19 outbreak, he saw adults and children mostly with respiratory infections, diarrhoea diseases and skin infections, as well as patients experiencing psychiatric illnesses.
But the pandemic has brought further pressure to an already fragile health system. As Covid-19 started hitting Bangladesh and the first case in the camps was confirmed in May, Dr Islam said some health care providers scaled down their activities because of issues such as reduced staffing and restricted movements.
At the same time, health workers have struggled to encourage refugees to be open about their symptoms.
“One of the issues is stigma and fear about Covid-19,” Dr Islam said. “Our refugee patients are afraid of going to the health centre. We have even seen some patients not disclosing Covid-related symptoms because they thought they would be treated differently after that.”
The World Health Organisation (WHO) reported that as of the end of August, about 4,000 coronavirus cases had been recorded in the host community in Cox’s Bazar, while some 100 refugees in the camps tested positive. Among the refugee population, six have died of Covid-19.
Pablo Percelsi, who heads the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) delegation in Bangladesh, said before the pandemic, the ICRC staff would see about 150 to 200 displaced people a day at the emergency room of Sadar Hospital in Cox’s Bazar. After March, the figures dropped to half.
“Given the size of the camps, (the number of confirmed Covid-19 cases) seem too little,” said Percelsi, adding there were concerns about undetected infections. “We might also see a spike, like it is happening in other parts of the world.”
Percelsi noted that the current scenario was unprecedented. “The combination of the size of the camps and a pandemic is something completely new. Both aid agencies and the state are facing challenges,” he said. “If something goes wrong, it could lead to very bad consequences because of the sheer number.”
Across the border, Myanmar’s health ministry on Tuesday said that 92 new coronavirus infections had b…

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