A 71-year-old man has become the first Rohingya living in vast refugee camps in Bangladesh to die from the coronavirus, an official said Tuesday.
Health experts have long warned that the deadly virus could race through the vast cramped network of bamboo shacks housing almost a million refugees who have fled neighboring Myanmar since a military crackdown in 2017.
Toha Bhuiyan, a senior health official in the Cox’s Bazar district, said the man died on Sunday and confirmation of coronavirus as the cause came on Monday night.
Mohammad Shafi, a Rohingya school teacher and a neighbor in the camps, said the man had long suffered from high blood pressure and a kidney complaint.
“Nobody realized that he was suffering from coronavirus. The news came as a shock to us,” Shafi told AFP. “In recent weeks a lot of people in the camps are suffering from fever, headache, and body pain. But most think they got sick because of the change in weather. They don’t bother to get tested for coronavirus.”
The fatality was in the Kutupalong shelter in southeast Bangladesh — the biggest refugee camp in the world — which alone is home to roughly 600,000 people.
The man was among at least 29 Rohingya to have tested positive for the virus in the camps.
Bhuiyan said the victim died in an isolation center run by the medical charity Doctors Without Borders and was buried in the camp the same day. He said authorities were trying to find people the deceased had been in contact with. Nine people have so far been placed in isolation.
More than 740,000 Rohingya fled a brutal 2017 military crackdown in Myanmar to Cox’s Bazar, where around 200,000 refugees were already living.
In early April authorities imposed a coronavirus lockdown on the district — home to 3.4 million people including the refugees — after a number of infections.
Bangladesh has seen a sharp rise in virus cases in recent weeks, with more than 60,000 infections and around 700 deaths nationwide.
The first infection among Rohingya, also in Kutupalong, was reported in mid-May. The 35-year-old man allegedly fled after testing positive and was found by police following a four-hour hunt in the camps. He was believed to have been infected at a hospital in a nearby town.
Officials stepped up testing and blocked roads leading to several areas of the camps where most of the infections have been recorded. Police used loud hailers to urge residents to follow social distancing rules.
Last week about 15,000 refugees were placed in quarantine as the number of cases increased.
Bangladesh and UN authorities have prepared seven isolation centers with the capacity to treat more than 700 patients inside the camps.
Bhuiyan said that local officials — in the absence of internet access — would speak to camp administrators to spread awareness about the fatality. But ensuring the virus does not spread is a major challenge in the warren of narrow, sometimes sewage-soaked alleys in the vast, teeming camps.
“Some Rohingya have shared with us grave concerns about the poorly maintained social distancing inside the camps,” said Saad Hammadi from Amnesty International. “[This is] one of the primary [pieces of] health and safety advice for this pandemic,” Hammadi said, adding that elderly Rohingya were the biggest concern.
The United Nations refugee agency, the UNHCR, is “working round the clock” to ensure testing is available, a spokesperson said Tuesday. The group was also making sure there were adequate facilities to care for patients, as well as contact tracing and isolation of those who may have been exposed.
Aid workers say many of the refugees know very little about the virus. They blame this partly on local authorities cutting off access to the internet in September to combat what they said were drug traffickers and other criminals.
“In the absence of mobile internet lots of rumors are spreading, and community members are not receiving updated information regarding COVID-19, as if it is something no one wants to touch,” rights activist Rezaur Rahman Lenin, who has worked in the camps, told AFP.
Mohammad Farid, a Rohingya community leader in Kutupalong, told AFP: “We are very tense. A lot of people live here and barely anybody maintains any regulation to avoid the disease. “This death only brings an ominous sign of what can happen to the larger mass in the future.”