As COVID-19 cases are confirmed in Myanmar, displaced Rohingya face new threats that reflect continued persecution

This past week, COVID-19 became an inescapable reality in Myanmar, with the government confirming 15 cases in different parts of the country (as of March 31). While for many, including Oxfam, such announcements have been anticipated given the global nature of the pandemic, this confirmation of the virus’ presence in the country has nonetheless brought with it further fears and uncertainty. Alison Kent, Director of Advocacy & Communications, Oxfam in Myanmar, reports on what coronavirus means for refugees and people displaced.

Habiba* washes her son at an Oxfam water pump. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam
Habiba* washes her son at an Oxfam water pump. Habiba lives in Kutupalong Camp with her three children. Oxfam installed four hand pumps near to her home. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam (*name changed)

Economic inequalities are set to deepen and women, who are often acting as the primary caregivers and in some of the most insecure forms of employment, will likely be disproportionately affected.

The virus is also set to have a potentially devastating impact on the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the violence and conflict that continues to mark a number of areas across the country, particularly for those who are living in internal displacement camps in Rakhine and Kachin states. As Oxfam, we have ongoing humanitarian programming in many of these camps, including the confined camps in Rakhine where an estimated 120,000 displaced Rohingya have remained for the past eight years.

We see first-hand the extremely limited access to health care and other essential services internally displaced people (IDPs) in Myanmar have as well as the underlying health challenges they face, from chronic malnutrition to cramped living conditions in inadequate shelters. All of these factors could significantly worsen the potential impact of a COVID-19 outbreak. In the confined camps in Rakhine, basic preventative measures, such social distancing and self-isolation, remain an impossibility for those who are living often as ten or more family members in a single shelter that measures about 9ft by 5ft.

Even hand washing is out of reach for some in the camps in light of extremely limited water supply. Based on our ongoing discussions with Rohingya IDPs in the camps, before the threat of COVID-19 became apparent, it was already clear that they faced major challenges in terms of basic health care:

“Living here in the camps, everything gives us diseases. The camp infects everyone with diseases, and I have no money to see a doctor. We must sit and bear it and suffer without any medication. We have no means to go see the doctor even when we are sick.” — Rohingya woman, 28 years old, displaced and living in the confined camps in central Rakhine, Myanmar.

Shim*, 12, holds an Oxfam food parcel she received from a distribution at Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh. Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam
Shim*, 12, holds an Oxfam food parcel she received from a distribution at Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

“Please send good doctors to the camps with enough medicine because here in the camps people here are losing their lives day by day. The camps make it very easy for people to contract diseases, but difficult to get medical treatment. The doctors do not see the patients and do not help us. And the patients are not receiving the right medicine for the illnesses they suffer.” — Rohingya woman, 35 years old, displaced and living in confined camps in central Rakhine, Myanmar

The lack of access to health care for those in the camps in Rakhine reflects extremely limited medical care in the camp, with doctors available only sporadically, and severe restrictions on the ability of IDPs to leave the camps and access more specialized services at the nearby hospital. If someone in the camps falls ill and needs more specialized care, they must seek and receive official permission, which often takes several days, and pay for a security escort to travel with them to the hospital located only a few kilometers away in town.

The complicated, time consuming and expensive process means that many are simply unable to access needed health care, even in an emergency. In this context, if IDPs do become sick with the COVID-19 virus, it is likely they will have little to no ability to isolate themselves or seek professional care. The possibility of an outbreak of the virus in these camps became that much clearer this week as a case of COVID-19 was confirmed in Cox’s Bazar, the town located across the border in Bangladesh, which is home to the sprawling refugee camps where 1 million Rohingya refugees currently live after fleeing horrific violence in Myanmar in 2017.

This is why as Oxfam we are urgently scaling up our humanitarian efforts in the Rohingya camps in Myanmar and the Rohingya camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, where we reach a combined total of 465,000 displaced people.

In the confined camps in central Rakhine, together with our partner Solidarités International, we are increasing public health promotion activities, including the urgent construction of an additional 1000 hand-washing stations, the distribution of 17,000 pieces of soap every month along with other basic hygiene items and sharing essential information about the prevention of the virus in Rohingya language through community networks and channels.

Similarly, in Cox’s Bazar, Oxfam has intensified and escalated hygiene promotion efforts, including prevention messaging with communities, while enhancing water and sanitation facilities. In a welcome move, the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner in Cox’s Bazar designated water and sanitation services as essential ones, enabling humanitarian agencies to continue to deliver such life-saving measures during the COVID-19 crisis. Such continued humanitarian access for life saving activities in the camps on both sides of the border remains critical.

While Oxfam, along with governments and other humanitarian organizations are mobilizing quickly to prevent the spread of the virus, another concern that impacts communities on both sides of the border and could significantly worsen the spread of the COVID-19 virus is the shutdown of internet services. Unlike most places in 2020, where we can check our mobile phones for immediate information about the virus, how to prevent it and what to do if you feel ill, millions of people, including many displaced communities, have experienced the shutdown of internet services in Myanmar (since June 2019) and Bangladesh (since August 2019).

Limited access to internet and phone services could have potentially catastrophic impacts given people’s reliance on those modes of communication to receive critical public health information, access essential services and flag potential cases with health officials. We are hopeful both governments will take this into account and resume internet and phone services given the urgency of the situation with COVID-19 and the particular risks those who are displaced face.

None of these issues — from the lack of protection, to the lack of essential services, to the lack of information — are new. Rohingya communities have been faced with an entirely precarious existence for years, struggling to access the very basics to survive. However, the threat of COVID-19 is putting the human rights crisis faced by Rohingya living in camps on both sides of the border into sharper focus. It starkly shows how equal rights are central to ensuring each human life is valued and protected, whether it’s amid a pandemic or not.

As Oxfam and many others are stepping up efforts to prevent and respond to Covid-19, we also need shifts in underlying rights, access to services and access to information if we are to succeed in keeping displaced communities as safe and as healthy as possible during this global health crisis. This requires an immediate end to internet shutdowns along with putting in place the basic protections that keep people alive.

It’s by focusing on the rights of Rohingya and other displaced communities that we can increase the effectiveness of COVID-19 prevention efforts in the immediate and reduce vulnerabilities over the long term.

This entry posted 1 April 2020, by Alison Kent, Director of Advocacy & Communications, Oxfam in Myanmar.

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