Coronavirus: Fears grow as pandemic reaches Rohingya camps

Health workers rush to trace contacts of first confirmed case among nearly a million refugees in Bangladesh

Rohingya refugees gather at a market as first cases of COVID-19 coronavirus have emerged in the area, in Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia on May 15, 2020. Emergency teams raced on May 15 to prevent a coronavirus "nightmare" in the world's largest refugee settlement after the first confirmed cases in a sprawling city of shacks housing nearly a million Rohingya.
 / AFP / Suzauddin RUBEL
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Emergency teams raced to prevent a coronavirus “nightmare” in the world’s largest refugee settlement after the first reported cases in a site housing nearly one million Rohingya.

Health officials said three people living in the 34 camps along the Bangladesh-Myanmar border tested positive.

Special teams fanned out across the teeming camps on Friday trying to find anyone who had been in contact with the two men and a woman.

A 35-year-old man living in Kutupalong, the largest of the Rohingya camps, was the first to test positive. The man allegedly tried to flee but was found by police after a four-hour hunt.

A 42-year-old woman and a 30-year-old man were the other positive cases. It was not immediately known if they were linked.

The man is believed to have been infected in a hospital in a nearby town where he took a brother for treatment, Community leader Abdur Rahim told AFP.

Investigation teams formed by aid agencies tried to quickly track the contacts the infected people had in the teeming camps.

More than 700,000 people fled across the border after a 2017 Myanmar military crackdown on the Rohingya, who are now stuck in the camps, where there is barely room to move and sewage flows uncontrolled in the narrow alleys.

There are widespread fears the pandemic could spread rapidly.

Cox’s Bazar district health chief Mahbubur Rahman said an entire block in one camp, housing about 5,000 people, was shut off, and that all those linked to the three cases would be taken to isolation centres.

An AFP correspondent who went into the camps on Friday saw red flags set up in a zone around the infected man’s hut, but hundreds of people walked by apparently unaware of the emergency.

Police used megaphones to urge residents to follow social distancing rules, but the calls went unheeded.

A World Health Organisation spokesman, Catalin Bercaru, said that since February, aid agencies had been preparing to isolate and treat eventual cases.

The UN's refugee agency said 12 respiratory infection treatment centres were being set up and up to 1,900 intensive care beds, five quarantine centres and 20 isolation facilities were planned.

Bangladesh authorities ordered a strict lockdown in early April in Cox's Bazar district, which has 3.4 million people including the refugees after a number of Covid-19 cases were found.

Traffic in and out of the camps was virtually halted and even the number of aid workers allowed in was slashed.

The country of 168 million people has seen a rapid rise to almost 21,000,000 cases and more than 300 deaths.

Sam Brownback, the US government's ambassador for religious freedom who has visited the refugees, said it was inevitable the virus would reach the "incredibly crowded" camps and spread "very rapidly".

Daniel Sullivan from Refugees International called it the "realisation of a nightmare scenario".

After the cases were detected, thousands of people roamed in the camps' main food markets, mostly without masks or any pretence at maintaining social distancing.

"Ten per cent listen but the rest don't care what we say about the virus crisis. They don't understand how badly it will affect us," said a community leader, Safih Ullah.

With little prospect of being able to return to Myanmar - where army operations persist in their home state of Rakhine - many refugees have in desperation tried to escape the camps by sea.

Last month, about 60 starved to death in a fishing trawler stranded at sea for two months after being denied entry by Malaysia and Thailand.