The novel coronavirus has been detected in one of the camps in southern Bangladesh that are home to more than a million Rohingya refugees, according to officials.
An ethnic Rohingya refugee and a local person tested positive for COVID-19, a senior Bangladeshi official and a United Nations spokeswoman said on Thursday. It was the first confirmed case in the densely populated camps as humanitarian groups warned the infection could devastate the crowded settlement.
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“Today, they have been taken to an isolation centre after they tested positive,” Mahbub Alam Talukder, the refugee relief and repatriation commissioner, told the Reuters news agency by telephone.
The other patient was from the “host population”, a term usually used to refer to locals living outside the camps, the UN spokeswoman said.
“One patient is from the refugee population and the other one from the surrounding host population,” WHO spokesman Catalin Bercaru told the AFP news agency.
Bercaru said “rapid investigation teams” were being deployed to follow up on the two cases, adding that the patients’ contacts are being traced for quarantine and testing.
Coronavirus infections have been gathering pace in recent days in Bangladesh, which has reported 18,863 cases of COVID-19 and 283 deaths so far.
The government enforced a nationwide lockdown on March 26 in an effort to check the spread of the disease. Despite the shutdown, the number of cases has risen sharply in recent days and the daily death toll and new infections hit a record on Wednesday.
In this April 15, 2020 photo, a health worker from an aid organisation walks wearing a hazmat suit at the Kutupalong Rohingya refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar [File: Shafiqur Rahman/AP]
In early April, authorities imposed a complete lockdown after a number of cases were found in Cox’s Bazar district, restricting all traffic in and out of the camps.
Bangladesh authorities also forced aid organisations to slash their camp presence by 80 percent.
Rights groups and activists have expressed concerns that the camps are hotspots of misinformation about the pandemic because of an internet ban imposed last September.
As many as 60,000-90,000 people are jammed into each square kilometre, with families of up to a dozen sharing small shelters.
Dr Shamim Jahan, health director for the international aid group Save the Children, said the situation was alarming.
“The virus has entered the world’s largest refugee settlement in Cox’s Bazar,” he said. “We are looking at the very real prospect that thousands of people may die from COVID-19. This pandemic could set Bangladesh back by decades.”
Jahan also expressed concern over limited healthcare capacity in the country, saying: “There are only an estimated 2,000 ventilators in all of Bangladesh, serving a population of 160 million people. In the Rohingya refugee camps, there are no intensive care beds at this moment.”
Meanwhile, the Burmese Rohingya Organisation UK said the outbreak must serve as “a wake-up call” for Bangladesh to lift internet restrictions in the camps.
“The blackout is not just preventing aid groups from doing their jobs, but also blocking refugees from accessing life-saving information,” said Tun Khin, president of BROUK.
More than 730,000 Rohingya arrived from Buddhist-majority Myanmar in late 2017 after fleeing a military crackdown.
Myanmar is facing charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in The Hague over the violence.