By Samira Sadeque
UNITED NATIONS, Mar 30 2020 (IPS) – As coronavirus makes its way through different continents, countries, and communities around the world having claimed more than 23,000 lives, experts are ringing alarm bells about the implications of the disease as it hits South Asia, which hosts almost 2 billion of the world’s population.
In South Asia, the number of cases being reported has increased in March, the same month the first fatalities were detected in the region. Last week, the first case of coronavirus was found near Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh, where more than 850,000 Rohingya refugees are placed. Meanwhile, four people tested positive in Mumbai’s slums, triggering concerns about what it means in places where people live in close quarters, often in poor and unhygienic conditions.
Experts are worried that the pandemic will have deadly effects on a region already suffering from issues such as communal violence in India, refugee crisis between Myanmar and Bangladesh, and terrorism in Afghanistan.
Refugee camps and slums
“When you have a pandemic like the Covid-19 affecting all over the world including countries with the best healthcare, the Rohingya refugees in the camps in Cox’s Bazar are certainly at a higher risk,” Saad Hammadi, Amnesty International’s Regional Campaigner in South Asia, told IPS.
In Bangladesh, the testing capacity is currently only in the capital, he said. “Clinics inside the camps are only capable of providing basic healthcare whereas the pandemic can require very complex healthcare services including mechanical ventilation for some patients, particularly the elderly people with existing respiratory conditions,” he added.
As for slums in places like Mumbai, he says the population density poses an “inevitable challenge” in the current situation. From slums in Mumbai to Afghan refugee camps in Pakistan and Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh, the trials are similar.
“For these people, social distancing is a luxury of space that they do not have,” says Hammadi. “Their access to health, food, shelter and the most essential services are usually the minimum that is afforded to anyone. Clearly, their vulnerability to such pandemic is much higher due to living in crammed conditions, deficiency in nutrition and poor sanitation and hygiene.”
Louise Donovan, Communications/PI Officer at the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, agreed that the physical nature of the camps can make it challenging to ensure social distancing.
She said they have ramped up efforts with heightened communication methods such as radio spots, videos, posters, leaflets to increase awareness about the situation. They’ve also ramped up hygiene measures to ensure water and soaps are available to everyone there.
Both Donovan of UNHCR and Hammadi of Amnesty highlighted the importance of digital communication at a time like this, in order to ensure the communication is done correctly.
“Mobile data communications restrictions in the Rohingya refugee camps should be lifted,” said Donovan. “Life-saving health interventions require rapid and effective communication.”
“The best that Bangladesh can do is immediately lift restrictions on internet and telecommunications in the camps and provide refugees with accurate information about the virus,” said Hammadi.
Terrorism in Afghanistan
Meanwhile, in Afghanistan, the country is reeling from various issues such as a recent terrorist attack that killed 25 at a Sikh temple and U.S. pulling $1 billion in aid within days of each other.
“There are several districts across Afghanistan which are under the direct control of Taliban where people are deprived of basic services including health care as well as remain unaware of developing information in relation to precautions and preventions on COVID19 spread in Afghanistan,” Samira Hamidi, South Asia Campaigner at Amnesty International in Afghanistan, told IPS. “ If Taliban do not cooperate under international humanitarian law and allow the health workers to enter these districts, the spread of COVID19 can cause massive harm to people.”
Given that social distancing has been named a crucial factor in containing the disease, a major force that can help stop is pausing conflicts. U.N. secretary-general António Guterres on Monday appealed for a global ceasefire in order to contain the current spread of the disease. But experts are worried if countries and world leaders will comply with that.
Hamidi highlighted this as well and pointed out the “lack of an unconditional ceasefire and lack of continuation of reduction in violence” which, if continued, will make the situation worse.
“If the insecurity continues, it will make the health workers’ contribution impossible to provide immediate support to COVID19 patients,” Hamidi said.
On a local level, relief organisations are doing their part while looking up to the governments to lift current restrictions that are detrimental to the efforts.
Donovan says UNHCR has trained 180 community health workers to raise awareness about the issue in the camps, who are expected to train a further 1,400 refugee community health workers. For isolation, the organisation has 400 beds available if a need arises, but have said they’re working with the government to have 1,500 beds.
Hammadi, of Amnesty, has said it’s crucial for governments to be transparent about the information and spread of the disease.
“The pandemic is set to break into thousands of cases in a region that hosts nearly 600 million people who are vulnerable and marginalised,” he said. “In spite of a bleak prospect of a respite from the pandemic anytime soon, countries will do better with transparency in their reporting of the case than withholding vital information that can help researchers and health experts to respond to the crisis more effectively.”
By Samira Sadeque