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Rohingya Refugee Camps Recorded First COVID-19 Death


As hard as it can be for most people to maintain social distance, consider how much harder it is for refugees packed into makeshift camps. That is the reality for 1 million Muslim-minority Rohingya who fled Myanmar. Their camps are in neighboring Bangladesh, and those camps recorded their first confirmed death from COVID on June 1. Michael Sullivan reports.

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Two weeks ago, Bangladesh declared parts of the Cox's Bazar district, where the camps are located, a red zone and clamped a lockdown on those areas as the virus spread.

LOUISE DONOVAN: I think everybody is very concerned that the numbers are going to increase significantly.

SULLIVAN: Louise Donovan is spokesperson for the UNHCR in Cox's Bazar.

DONOVAN: If you look at Bangladesh, if you look at Cox's Bazar, the numbers are increasing very rapidly. And we're concerned that the same thing will happen in the camps.

SULLIVAN: Camps that have some of the highest population density in the world. Ram Das runs the Rohingya relief effort in Cox's Bazaar for the NGO CARE International.

RAM DAS: It is four times the density of New York City, eight times the density of Wuhan city. That's how packed it is. So it's scary for us.

SULLIVAN: And that, he says, makes social distancing in the camps almost impossible.

DAS: You can't just keep people inside the house 24 hours. They have to go out for food. They have to go to the community toilets. They have to go to the health centers. So it's very difficult to make sure that all the million people follow these standards.

SULLIVAN: One million people. Aid groups are struggling to finish 12 new clinics for COVID patients with a total of 1,900 beds by the end of June. Robert Lukwatas' Food for the Hungry opened the first a few weeks ago.

ROBERT LUKWATA: We're using it as a primary care center, but because of the need on the ground, we had to modify it very fast to ensure that we are responding to the urgent need, which is COVID.

SULLIVAN: His clinic has 50 beds for isolation and treatment of moderate to severe cases. Another clinic outside the camp has 150 more. But critical cases that require intensive care and ventilators will have to go to the government hospital in Cox's Bazar, and that worries him.

LUKWATA: The number of beds in Cox’s Bazar are still limited. As I talk now, I told you there are 10 beds that are planned right now that are being set up. And that’s a drop in the ocean if I total the number of COVID cases (unintelligible).

SULLIVAN: Another concern - Rohingya in the camps are reluctant to come forward for testing and are instead self-medicating with help from makeshift pharmacies inside the camps. Sultan Rohim Ullah (ph) runs one.

SULTAN ROHIM ULLAH: (Through interpreter) They fear if they go to the clinic, the doctors will send them to quarantine, not just them but their whole families. So they come here instead.

SULLIVAN: Yeasmin Ara (ph) is a Rohingya activist who works for an international aid group to build awareness in the camps.

YEASMIN ARA: (Through interpreter) Some people say they are afraid to go to the clinic because they have heard they will be killed. We tell them no and explain what isolation and quarantine are. And we tell them if they are sick, they will get treatment until they are better. Then they will go home. But people are still suspicious.

SULLIVAN: The Bangladesh government's ban on Internet in the camps isn't helping people get information either. And then there's the rainy season, which brings a slew of illnesses that present much as COVID does with coughs, achy bones and fevers. That leads people to self-medicate for those ailments instead of getting tested. Combine that with the fear factor, and it's little wonder that some aid workers worry the number of cases in the camps is far greater than what's being reported so far. For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai, Thailand. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Michael Sullivan
Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.