Since the Government of Bangladesh announced its nationwide lockdown last Wednesday 25th March 2020, panic has gripped communities everywhere in Bangladesh. The lockdown included instruction for every aid agency and worker to vacate the Rohingya refugee camps in Kutupalong in Cox’s Bazar. It has left the refugee community shocked with fear and concern over their immediate futures.

This picture is not too dissimilar to many other communities across Bangladesh who survive hand to mouth and do not have the means and access to isolate as per the Government’s instruction. It is also not different to how many migrant worker communities might feel across the length and breadth of South Asia as administrations have announced little to no notice closures of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. As a result we have seen images this week of migrant workers having to walk 800-1000km to reach home from their cities of work in India and, to double the blow, authorities have literally physically been disinfecting groups of migrants with hoses in the most demeaning way possible.

Across Dadaab and Idlib and countless other refugee camps, the fear of the unseen virus fuelled by a lack of adequate information and virtually zero preparedness means that the most vulnerable in our 7 billion strong global family find themselves at the greatest risk once again.

In fact the majority of the response by Governments in the global south has been to mimic their more wealthier, better healthcare yielding counterparts across Europe and North America. The notion of social distancing and isolation doesn’t work in a refugee camp where homes are often constructed of bamboo and plastic sheets 4m by 4m in size and with an average of 7 people living in each home. The privilege of regular washing of hands that European administrations have been advising is not possible when refugee communities are relying on communal taps where the contamination and spread of infection cannot be abated because of the high number of users of taps and ‘clean’ water access. The idea that if 'we', in the global north, were to fall seriously sick, we have a healthcare service that we can use but who we are trying to protect by not leaving our homes is not feasible for the Rohingya refugee community, when they, 1.1 million in number and the local Cox’s Bazar population between them have only one medical facility to serve. This facility does not have capacity for tens of respirators – it has just two.

Currently the entire world's thought process and reaction has been through the privileged lens of the global north - social distancing, increased hygiene, stockpiling of food and support for health care systems. It hasn't worked in USA, Italy, France, Spain and in the UK - it's unlikely to work in countries where those steps are simply not feasible.

But the biggest fear for migrant labourers, hand to mouth populations, and most pertinently, refugee camp dwellers, is of food scarcity. The lack of access to food and the lengths that these communities may have to face will claim many times more lives than the COVID 19. The Rohingya for example now have a total insecurity of food, not knowing which aid agency and when their next food will come from. They have been stripped of internet communication since September 2019, they are not allowed to work and earn money, and now their food sources have been suspended.

For the Rohingya, vis a vis virtually every refugee community in the world, vis a vis virtually all hand to mouth migrant and manual labourers the following three steps are not only crucial, but the only possible way to save lives.

– essential hygiene items such as soap, access to clean water, protection items like face masks, gloves etc are all needed in huge numbers. More than that, continued and asserted efforts to increase the awareness and therefore preparedness for the COVID needs to be implemented. Restless Beings have started doing this in the Rohingya camps, but we call on other organisations to do so in other refugee communities. To support, please click here.

– one of the major issues is that there are not enough health facilities to serve bulging populations. Moreover, these facilities are poorly equipped and as a result health care workers cannot and will not treat patients (with COVID or other patients) due to fear of infection for themselves and for their patients. Immediate supply of PPE (personal protective equipment) is needed for these front line health workers and doctors. Restless Beings has also began working on this area, attempting to provide Cox’s Bazar Medical College with 200 PPE packs for health care workers. We have been told that Sylhet and Kishoregonj in Bangladesh will have large numbers of COVID cases too, so we are raising money for 200 PPE packs for each of these two facilities also.You can support by clicking here.

– refugee populations will find themselves bottom of the priority when countries strategize over how to feed their populations. Migrant labourers, manual labourers and refugees do not have access to money to stockpile, they don’t have fridges and freezers to store their stockpile and they don’t have the space to stockpile. Bangladesh as an example is already seeking assistance from aid agencies to feed its large 160 million population – the 1.1 million Rohingya who have even more limited access, even more isolation from the world via the internet ban, even less chance of fending for themselves because they cant work, even worse access to healthcare as they are stranded a minimum of 2 hours away from the medical facility will also find themselves bottom of the priority list. We at Restless Beings will endeavour as we have done so for the past 10 years plus to ensure that we can get some access to food and basic necessities for the Rohingya as soon as possible.

For all those that have followed our work, have donated and have supported us since our inception in 2008, thank you. Now, more than ever before, we, as in the global family, need to rely on each other more than we ever have before. Please continue to support our work and each other during these dystopian times.

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