‘The coronavirus is a risk to everyone – but the greatest risks are to refugee communities like ours.’Mohammed Arfaat
Social activist and peacebuilder in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps
Rohingya children are seen in Bangladesh’s Rohingya refugee camps on 7 March 2019. Cramped quarters and limited health services make refugees particularly vulnerable to epidemics, aid groups warn. (Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS)
Editor’s note: The coronavirus outbreak could be particularly devastating for people living in cramped refugee and displacement camps, aid groups say. In Bangladesh’s Rohingya camps, aid groups and the government are mapping out contingency plans, and trying to boost health systems and hygiene promotion campaigns. But one roadblock is the government’s months-long ban on phone and internet access for refugees. In this opinion piece, Mohammed Arfaat, a 25-year-old who fled his home in Myanmar in 2012, explains how the ban is stoking fear and rumours, and making it hard for Rohingya to prepare for an epidemic.COX’S BAZAR
As a Rohingya refugee living in Bangladesh’s camps, I am making an urgent request to policymakers and humanitarians: we Rohingya refugees are in desperate need of phone and internet access.
While people across the globe deal with the coronavirus pandemic in their own communities, there are nearly one million Rohingya, like me, who are struggling to prepare ourselves with even the most basic information about the virus.
We have been denied internet and phone access for the past six months. What we mostly hear about the coronavirus are false rumours, passed from person to person across the camps: 100,000 people infected in one country; tens of thousands dead in another.
This alone is creating a panicked and unstable situation in the camps. We are terrified of being abandoned at this time of extreme need and risk.
A few youths like me find ways to access the internet. We have been doing our best to learn about the virus so that we can raise awareness in our community.
Now I know why the illness is called COVID-19.
I know what the symptoms are.
I’ve learned that the best way to stay safe is to wash your hands and to avoid crowded places.
But without the internet and mobile phones, it’s virtually impossible to spread the message at a large scale.
I’ve made two videos about the coronavirus in our Rohingya language. Non-governmental organisations in the camps are also trying to spread the word on the importance of hand-washing, or staying at home. How do you reach everyone across the massive refugee camps, when most Rohingya can’t use their phones to share these messages and communicate?
I am afraid to even think about what would happen if an outbreak happens here. It will be very difficult for us to protect ourselves from the virus because massive numbers of people live together in tiny, crowded shelters.
“Without the internet and mobile phones, it’s virtually impossible to spread the message at a large scale.”
We spend every waking and sleeping moment of our lives gathered with each other. Our shelters are too close to each other. Dozens of people share each toilet and water well.
Furthermore, if people get sick, they will go to camp health clinics directly instead of following the World Health Organisation’s precautions to call for advice first – all because they cannot make a simple phone call to a health NGO beforehand.
I’ve read that people around the world are trying to protect themselves using face masks and other items. But masks cost nearly $2 here, and gloves cost about $1. How can our people possibly buy these items? We are denied the right to work and most of us have no income to help us survive.
If the virus affects me or my community, we will be more likely to die than people elsewhere because we have no medical or testing equipment like those of you living in developed societies, where even your own health systems are burdened.
The coronavirus is a risk to everyone – but the greatest risks are to refugee communities like ours. We hear the coronavirus has already reached Bangladesh, so it may only be a matter of time.