“Two more Rohingya die from corona: Locals in panic” — screamed a recent newspaper headline in southeastern Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar.
Social media has sometimes been equally hysterical. One college teacher posted on Facebook that lack of awareness about COVID-19 among Rohingya refugees from Myanmar “will lead to our collapse.”
In August 2017, more than 740,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya fled a brutal military crackdown in northwestern Myanmar’s Rakhine state and entered Bangladesh as refugees. The United Nations described it as a “textbook example of ethnic cleansing.” Bangladesh already had 200,000 refugees from earlier Rohingya exoduses that began in the 1970s.
The novel coronavirus pandemic has exacerbated resentment in the densely populated country toward the refugees, and also brought further uncertainty to their chances of repatriation.
The Rohingya have meanwhile been exasperated at the lack of consultation by Myanmar, Bangladesh and the UNHCR. Refugee leaders feel their views were sidelined in any discussions as early as November 2017 when repatriation was first addressed.
Abdul Mozid, a rural physician, runs a drug store near Kutupalong camp, a sprawling settlement made of bamboo and plastic sheets that is home to over 500,000 refugees. “Camps are like slums,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review. “People are scared that this will spread the coronavirus.”
In the 34 densely packed camps, social distancing simply cannot be observed, points out Yassin Abdumonab, a young Rohingya researcher and poet living in Kutupalong.
But some officials are bullish. Mahbub Alam Talukder, Bangladesh’s commissioner for refugee relief and repatriation, credits the efforts of officials and aid groups, as well as restrictions on movement, in keeping the numbers of confirmed cases and fatalities low in the refugee camps.
As of July 4, five Rohingya had died of COVID-19 — about one-seventh of deaths in surrounding communities. The number of confirmed cases outside exceeded 2,700 compared to just 52 in the camps.