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Virus enters world's largest refugee camps

Officials sounded the alarm after the first COVID-19 infections were detected at the world's largest refugee settlement for Rohingyas in Bangladesh.

GENEVA (AN) — Officials with the U.N. refugee agency and other aid organizations sounded the alarm on Friday after the first COVID-19 infections were detected at the world's largest refugee settlement for Rohingya Muslims in Bangladesh.

The Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, or UNHCR, said it had serious concerns about the 855,000 Rohingyas overcrowded into plastic shacks in 34 refugee camps and 444,000 Bangladeshis living in the surrounding host communities. The virus could spread quickly among them since the camps hold an average of 40,000 people per square kilometer, almost four times more dense than New York City.

"These populations are considered to be among the most at risk globally in this pandemic," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic told a press briefing in Geneva. "No effort must be spared if higher fatality rates are to be avoided in overcrowded sites with limited health and water and sanitation infrastructure."

Aid organizations have been expressing worry about the potential for the virus to spread in the camps and pressuring the government in Bangladesh to ease up on internet and mobile phone restrictions — put in place due to concerns about security and crime — so that aid workers can spread health safety information.

UNHCR and other international aid organizations said they were quickly moving to bolster health care for Rohingyas and Bangladeshis around the world's largest refugee settlement in Bangladesh at Cox's Bazar.

Bangladesh government officials confirmed the first case of COVID-19 in a Rohingya refugee and a local Bangladeshi. They were tested in a government-run field lab after contacting some of aid organizations.

Rapid response teams were sent to investigate the cases, isolate and treat the patients and launch efforts at contact tracing, quarantine and testing of contacts in accordance with the World Health Organization's coronavirus pandemic guidelines, according to Mahecic. Some 108 refugees were tested as of Thursday.

In 2018, a U.N. expert panel returned from Bangladesh where they and other human rights investigators gathered evidence of what they described as a military-planned campaign of genocide against the Rohingya Muslim minority in Buddhist-dominated Myanmar.

Last September, it ended two years of investigation by urging the world to hold the military responsible for “genocidal acts” against the Rohingyas. The panel said the Rohingyas suffered marginalization, discrimination and brutality at the hands of Myanmar's armed forces, called the Tatmadaw.

It said some 600,000 Rohingyas inside Myanmar face persecution and live under the threat of genocide, while Myanmar’s 2017 “clearance operations” — mass killings, rapes and burning of villages — cost thousands of lives and caused more than 740,000 Rohingya to flee to Bangladesh.

In January, the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar’s government to prevent more atrocities that would violate the 1951 U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. The court said its instructions to Myanmar were “provisional measures” that will remain in effect at least until it delivers a final decision in the case, which could last several years.

Less than a month ago, however, a United Nations human rights investigator urged the world body to “step up its efforts” to protect ethnic and religious minorities against Myanmar's military. Yanghee Lee, the U.N. special rapporteur on Myanmar, said the Tatmadaw had not stopped its “ongoing war crimes and crimes against humanity” against the Rohingyas in Myanmar's Rakhine and Chin states.

Thousands at risk

Save the Children cautioned the virus could be devastating for the refugees with scarce resources to fight it.

“We are deeply worried about the catastrophic impact of COVID-19 on Bangladesh, as the country’s total caseload nears 20,000," said Dr. Shamim Jahan, Save the Children’s health director in Bangladesh, which has logged 283 deaths among 18,863 confirmed coronavirus cases.

"Now that the virus has entered the world’s largest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar, we are looking at the very real prospect that thousands of people may die from COVID-19," he said. "This pandemic could set Bangladesh back by decades."

Jahan said the refugee camps have limited capacity to deal with the pandemic, lacking any intensive care beds. Bangladesh has just 2,000 ventilators for its population of 160 million people.

"COVID-19 has exposed how vulnerable Rohingya refugees are," he said in a statement urging donors to come forward to help the refugees. "Rohingya refugee children cannot be allowed to spend their lives without access to formal education, health care and with severe restrictions on their freedom of movement.”

Another global humanitarian organization, CARE, said Rohingyas are susceptible to the virus, living in flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin shelters and lacking basic amenities like soap for hand-washing and laundry.

Women and girls also are especially vulnerable, the organization said, because they are required to fetch water, wash, cook and take care of family members who are ill. More isolation rooms are needed, and aid workers are scrambling to inform people about social distancing and identifiable symptoms of the virus.

"This confirmation of the first COVID-19 case is a stark reminder of how vulnerable we are, with almost 1 million people being at risk of infection," Deepmala Mahla, CARE's regional director for Asia, said in a statement.

"This is precisely the time to join forces to do everything possible to stop the spread and protect the people in Cox’s Bazar camps who have already suffered from unspeakable traumas," she said. "Given the first positive COVID-19 case in the camps, we are deeply concerned and feel this could have potential huge risks for others in the community as well as for all frontline workers."