One of the most densely populated countries in the world, Bangladesh also houses the world’s largest refugee camp. Across Cox’s Bazar, nearly one million Rohingya refugees live in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions. As COVID-19 spreads through Bangladesh, these are the five key challenges to overcome.
1. Highly vulnerable populations
Across Bangladesh, many impoverished communities face a precarious existence in crowded environments, making them particularly vulnerable to COVID-19. Many Bangladeshis live in densely populated urban and slum areas and Rohingya refugees are stuck in cramped, squalid shelters, with up to 10 family members to a room.
Maintaining physical distance in these settings is near impossible. In the refugee camps, around 860,000 Rohingya live in just 26 square kilometres of land in Cox’s Bazar, with poor access to soap or clean water. They depend on communal distributions for drinking water, food and fuel, which means they must wait for hours in large groups to receive these.
“People feel frustrated with the constant advice to wash their hands. If you have only 11 litres per day, how is this enough to wash your hands all the time?” says Richard Galpin, MSF water and sanitation expert.
After decades of persecution in Myanmar, during which access to healthcare was severely restricted, the Rohingya have low levels of health and lack the protection of routine immunisations, making them particularly vulnerable to infectious diseases.
Before COVID-19, around 30 per cent of patients treated by MSF in the refugee camps presented with respiratory tract symptoms, such as shortness of breath. This puts them in a high-risk group for this new disease.