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The first confirmed Coronavirus case in Cox’s Bazar exposes how our systems fail the most vulnerable

Athena Rayburn, Save the Children’s Humanitarian Advocacy Manager, based in Cox’s Bazar. 

All over the world, the number of Coronavirus cases is climbing. In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, we have watched the crisis unfold across the world, knowing that it was just a matter of time before the virus reached the largest refugee settlement on earth.

With reports of the first confirmed case in the local community in Cox’s Bazar, spread to the camps now looks inevitable. And the potential death toll unimaginable.

One million Rohingya refugees, half of whom are children, have been cramped together in these camps since 2017, after they were forced to flee their homes in Myanmar to escape horrific violence. Now, they face yet another threat to their lives.

In the densely packed camps of Cox’s Bazar, social distancing is not an option. Many refugees are living in cramped conditions in makeshift shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin. When access to clean water is severely limited, simple hygiene practices like regular hand washing become a complicated logistical feat. Even communities with strong healthcare systems have been brought to their knees by this virus – here, they stand little chance of fighting back.

But while the rest of the world grinds to a halt in a bid to contain the virus, a life in limbo is nothing new for Rohingya refugees. They have been living in limbo for years. It is their status quo.

The refugees living in Cox’s Bazar may have escaped Myanmar with their lives, but that does not mean they are safe. If we learn anything from this crisis, it must be that life in a refugee camp should never be a long-term solution. The rapid speed at which the virus is spreading must serve as a warning: Time is running out to resolve the issues in Myanmar that would finally allow the Rohingya to return home. While the people and Government of Bangladesh have generously sheltered the Rohingya for years, life in the camps is not safe.

The Government of Bangladesh and humanitarian agencies have sprung into action. Rohingya refugees are included in the Government’s national plan to respond to COVID-19, and food distribution agencies are developing new ways to distribute food that minimises person-to-person contact. Rohingya volunteers are mobilising throughout the camps to educate communities about the importance of hand washing. The humanitarian agencies in Cox’s Bazar have already stripped back to essential-only services like healthcare and food distribution -- a necessary step to curb the spread of the virus.

But this decision, too, will come at a cost. Just two months after the Bangladeshi Government agreed to provide formal education to Rohingya children in the camps, schools will now have to be closed. Child-friendly spaces run by Save the Children have already been shut down, and may need to be repurposed for medical use if the need arises. For every step forward Rohingya children are able to take, it seems, they must take several steps back.

At a time when there are more displaced people around the world than ever before, the Coronavirus has exposed how our systems fail the most vulnerable. Our global mechanisms for accountability and the protection of human rights have failed the Rohingya so far – it is essential that we do not fail them again.

Only a global response will stop the spread of the virus everywhere. This means the international community must step up to offer medical support, testing kits, share data and provide much needed funding to support the response.

But most importantly, when the dust settles we cannot go back to ‘business as usual’. We cannot assume we have endless time to resolve this crisis, that Rohingya children can wait. Rohingya children must be afforded a future of hope and opportunity, like every child deserves. We may not have the power to safeguard against another pandemic, but we do have the power to ensure it isn’t the most vulnerable that end up paying the heaviest price.

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