DHAKA: Bangladesh authorities have imposed a lockdown at Rohingya refugee camps after a surge in coronavirus (COVID-19) cases.
Officials introduced a strict 12-day lockdown on Thursday in five camps at Cox’s Bazar district, which has 34 makeshift refugee settlements and hosts more than 1 million Rohingya Muslims. The refugees are members of an ethnic and religious minority group that fled persecution in neighboring Myanmar during a military crackdown in 2017.
COVID-19 tests conducted over the past 24 hours revealed that 15 percent of the Rohingya tested in the camps had contracted the virus.
“We have enforced the lockdown in the most affected refugee camps. Four are in Ukhia and the other one is in the Teknaf subdistrict,” Dr. Abu Toha Bhuyan, health sector coordinator of Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission, told Arab News on Friday.
He said more than 165,000 people in the five camps will be impacted by this “precautionary measure,” which was set up to curb the further spread of the virus.
“No one will be allowed to go out or enter within these camps during the lockdown days,” Bhuyan said.
“Only people providing emergency services which include food, medicine, nutrition, sanitation and gas supply will be allowed to move in during this time.”
Law enforcement checkpoints were installed inside the camps to restrict people’s movement, he said.
As for the COVID-19-related patients, two quarantine centers at the camps can accommodate up to 1,075 people while 552 beds at camp health facilities are ready to treat the more severe cases. Critical patients would be transferred from the camps to district health facilities.
Health authorities warned the actual outbreak could be worse than originally reported.
“The actual number of infections could be at least five times higher if we could increase the number of tests,” Dr. Anupam Barua, principal of Cox’s Bazar Medical College, told Arab News.
“But the Rohingyas are mostly reluctant to conduct a coronavirus test unless the symptoms become much more worrisome.”
According to Barua, his team is monitoring a possible link between the refugee camp outbreak and the emergence of a new, more infectious COVID-19 variant that was first reported in India.
“We are still not sure whether the Indian variant has spread in the camps or not,” Baruda said.
“This variant is 20 times more infectious. It may create a disastrous situation in the highly congested refugee camps, which hold more than 1 million people in only a few acres of land.”
He added: “I think a genome sequence should be conducted immediately from the samples of the Rohingya camps. If we have the proper information regarding the variants, it will help us in our preparation.”
Mostafa Mohammed Sazzad Hossain, a UN Refugee Agency spokesperson in Dhaka, said the health sector is more than prepared to handle the outbreak, as nearly 80 percent of the patients are considered to be mild cases.
“A camp-wide contact tracing network has been embedded in the rapid investigation and response teams for COVID-19 to coordinate,” he said.
“Widespread information sharing and awareness-raising campaigns are underway to ensure that the population knows how to reduce the risk of transmitting the virus.”