First Rohingya refugee dies of coronavirus as aid agencies warn of 'ticking time bomb'

Nicola Smith
A health worker wearing a hazmat suit walks through the Cox's Bazar Rohingya camp, the largest refugee camp in the world -  Shafiqur Rahman/AP

Fears about the spread of the coronavirus in the world’s largest refugee camps in Bangladesh spiked on Tuesday after confirmation that a 71-year-old man had become the first Rohingya to die from the respiratory disease.

Aid workers in the Kutupalong camps that house almost 860,000 Rohingya refugees near the southeast Bangladeshi town of Cox’s Bazar have long warned that the deadly virus could sweep through the squalid accommodation and its under-nourished population.

The man was among at least 29 Rohingya who have so far been diagnosed with the disease. "He died on May 31. But last night we got the confirmation that he died of COVID-19," said Toha Bhuiyan, a senior health official in the Cox's Bazar district.

Bhuiyan said the victim died in an isolation centre run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders and was buried in the camp the same day.

"We are going to speak to administrators in the camp and alert people about the death," Bhuiyan said, adding they were trying to find people the deceased had been in contact with.

His son, who did not wish to be named, told The Telegraph that his father had faced breathing problems for some time and had sought medical help when it got worse but died during treatment. His wife, another son and a grandson have all been quarantined. 

Most of the camps inhabitants arrived in 2017 after fleeing a vicious military-led ethnic cleansing campaign in their home in Myanmar’s Rakhine State.

 

Kutupalong is the largest refugee camp in the world, with over 600,000 refugees living in cramped conditions - SUZAUDDIN RUBEL/AFP

They now live in cramped accommodation that squeezes 40,000-70,000 people into each square kilometre. Dependent on aid, they are deprived of formal education, the means to earn a livelihood, and, since last year, access to the internet.

Aid workers and community leaders have warned that the decision by the Bangladeshi government to switch off the internet could have deadly consequences now that the pandemic has struck the camps as many refugees remain uninformed about the symptoms and spread of the virus.

The first cases in the camps were detected in mid-May, and officials have since blocked roads leading to the camps for all but essential workers. Last week about 15,000 refugees were placed in quarantine as the number of cases increased.

However, Khin Maung, executive director of the Rohingya Youth Association, appealed to the Bangladeshi government to do more to enforce the wearing of masks and social distancing measures in the camps and to improve treatment facilities.

“A serious problem is that people do not know about social distancing,” he told The Telegraph. “People are very worried because they know that people are dying around the world..but they do not know real information about Covid-19, this is the real problem.”

Aid groups have also warned that the disease could be spreading silently through the camps and the case numbers could be much higher than officially reported because of a lack of testing facilities. Many are ramping up contingency plans to prepare for an influx of cases.

Last week, 15,000 people were quarantined in an attempt to control the spread of the virus and prevent an outbreak - Paula Bronstein/ Getty Images AsiaPac

An alarming report by the Baltimore-based Johns Hopkins Centre for Humanitarian Health in April contained scientific modelling showing estimated infections would range from 119-504 in the first 30 days after an initial case, and between 424,798 and 543,647 in 12 months.

On Tuesday, Relief International said it had admitted its first 20 patients at a new 144-bed isolation and treatment centre for COVID-19 cases with moderate to severe complications.

Run by Relief International in partnership with the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, the centre is the largest facility of its kind currently up and running in Cox’s Bazar, providing patients from both the Rohingya and Bangladeshi host communities with potentially life-saving care.

The group warned that the number of patients was expected to quickly escalate.  

“It is a ticking time bomb,” said Alejandro Agustin Cuyar, Relief International’s Cox's Bazar Programme Director.

“The refugee camps are intensely over-crowded, with shared water sources and communal toilets and washing facilities, so preventing viral transmission is near impossible,” he said.

“Once the virus takes hold, it will be incredibly challenging to flatten the curve, so we are gravely concerned the numbers needing treatment will soon be overwhelming.”