More than a million Rohingya live cheek to jowl in the world’s largest refugee camp. If the Bangladeshi authorities don’t move expeditiously to prepare for the arrival of COVID-19, it is all but certain to be catastrophic, not only for the Rohingya but Bangladesh and the rest of the world.
I was born and raised in a Rohingya refugee camp in Bangladesh but was fortunate to be resettled 11 years ago in the United Kingdom through a United Nations program. I visited my birthplace last December and saw the harrowing conditions of the camp – open sewers, malnutrition, virtually no social services or educational opportunities. I spent two months in the camps living with my grandparents and extended family, where I shared the small bedroom in which I had been born with eight others. I was horrified that the situation for the million refugees was no better than when I left.
Even under the best of circumstances, it is beyond the means of Bangladesh, a poor and densely populated country to provide substantially better conditions. But it is within the power of the government of Bangladesh to lift the internet blackout that has kept the Rohingya largely cut off from the outside world and which leaves them especially vulnerable to COVID-19.
For over six months, Rohingyas have not had access to the internet or cell phone data. They have been cut off from news about their relatives still in Myanmar, international developments concerning their future, and most recently, accurate and reliable information about COVID-19 and the steps countries are taking to address it. They would have no means of knowing, for example, who has tested positive for coronavirus in the camps or how to contact hotlines as opposed to showing up at hospitals which may be already at overcapacity.