Emergency teams were moving swiftly on Friday to prevent a coronavirus “nightmare” in the world’s largest refugee settlement after the first confirmed cases in a camp housing nearly a million Rohingya in Bangladesh.
Local government official Mahfuzar Rahman said on Friday an entire block in one camp, housing approximately 5,000 people, was shut off.
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“We have locked down the block, barring anyone from entering or leaving their homes,” he said.
Rahman added that they were also trying to “contact-trace” people the infected person had met and they would all be brought to isolation centres set up in the camps.
A senior advocate for Refugees International, Daniel Sullivan, said the first COVID-19 case was the “realisation of a nightmare scenario”.
A senior US official who has visited the refugees said it was only a matter of time for the virus to reach them.
“The refugee camp is incredibly crowded. The COVID virus will spread through there very rapidly,” said Sam Brownback, the ambassador-at-large for international religious freedom.
On Thursday, local health coordinator Abu Toha Bhuiyan said two refugees had tested positive.
But the World Health Organization (WHO) later said one case was a Rohingya man, and the other was a local man who lived near the camp and was being treated at a clinic inside the area.
WHO spokesman Catalin Bercaru told the AFP news agency that “rapid investigation teams” were being deployed and that the men’s contacts were being traced for quarantine and testing.
Shamim Jahan from Save the Children said “we are looking at the very real prospect that thousands of people may die from COVID-19”, with “no intensive care beds” in the camps.
There have long been warnings that the virus could spread like wildfire through the cramped, sewage-soaked alleys of the network of 34 camps in the Cox’s Bazar district bordering Myanmar.
Most of the Muslim refugees have been there since about 750,000 fled a 2017 military offensive in neighbouring Myanmar for which its government is facing genocide charges at the UN’s top court.
In early April, authorities had locked down the surrounding Cox’s Bazar district – home to 3.4 million people including the refugees – after a number of COVID-19 cases.
Bangladesh restricted traffic in and out of the camps and forced aid organisations to slash manpower by 80 percent.
The country of 160 million people is under lockdown and has seen a rapid rise in coronavirus cases in recent days, with almost 19,000 confirmed infections and 300 deaths as of Thursday.
Rights groups and others have also criticised Bangladesh for cutting internet access in the camps, which authorities say is to combat drug trafficking and other alleged criminal activities.
The lack of internet access has meant that information is hard to come by and that rumours abound, for example that coronavirus is always fatal.
“Open communication is critical to promoting hygiene awareness and tracking the spread of the disease,” Sullivan said.
“I have been calling on the Bangladeshi government to give internet access. It just seems to me ludicrous that they’re not,” Brownback told reporters in Washington, DC.