Facing a Pandemic in the Dark: An Update on Cox's Bazar & COVID-19, with Razia Sultana

April 23, 2020

Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. CREDIT: Maaz Hussain (CC).

Three weeks ago, Razia Sultana, a Rohingya lawyer and activist, wrote an article for the Carnegie Council website about how over 1 million Rohingya refugees living in unsanitary conditions and with no Internet access in makeshift camps in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh are dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic. In this Q&A, she gives an update on this situation.

This conversation took place on April 21, 2020. It has been edited for length and clarity. 

ALEX WOODSON: Razia, thank you so much for speaking today. I'm glad we are able to do this.

RAZIA SULTANA: Thank you and thank you for giving me your time.

ALEX WOODSON: What kind of work do you do and what kind of work does the Rohingya Women Welfare Society do?

RAZIA SULTANA: My name is Razia Sultana. I am a Rohingya lawyer and a human rights activist. I am working for the Cox's Bazar camp, especially with the Rohingya women.

We have been working on COVID-19 awareness for the last two weeks. It's not only for women—we include the youth group, women's group, and even elderly people. We are giving sessions, we are building awareness, but not directly because we cannot go over there, so we give instruction by phone to our youth. I am glad some youth have the initiative to work in this way. It's still going on and it is working. We are trying to prevent this coronavirus situation. 

The one thing is that there are still no people with symptoms inside the Rohingya camp. But for how long this will last, I don't know because the Bangladesh situation is getting worse day by day.

What has also happened recently at the camp, is the arrival of people by boat, more than 400 people. They are now in a transit camp. I don't know about their situation. Maybe they will have to stay in the transit camp for a 14-day quarantine. Let's see what is next. I'm afraid because so many people died at sea—and, yes, it's about hunger and disease—but still we are not sure if anybody is affected by coronavirus. We hope for the best.

But it's not in the camp so far. Cox's Bazar still is safe because they haven't found anything yet. One person had it, but she has already recovered, and she was in the hospital from the beginning. Cox's Bazar is safe, as far as my knowledge, but we will see.

Proper testing is not available yet, so we can't recognize the actual situation, what is coming next—this is the fact. So nobody is out of danger.

ALEX WOODSON: You wrote an article for the Carnegie Council website a few weeks ago, a really great article. One of the things that I learned about was the Internet blockade. I assume that still is the situation, that the refugees in the Cox's Bazar camp don't have access to the Internet. 

RAZIA SULTANA: Sometimes it's open; sometimes it's not open. If people go to the marketplace maybe they can find an Internet connection. Internet access was shut down in September 2019 and it still is going on.

After the COVID-19 announcement from the government, for one or two days we saw the Internet was open, but it was only for two days. 

We still now cannot find a connection. But those who want to talk come to the marketplace. They try to connect with us. Sometimes they can talk with us, but sometimes they cannot. 

But the Internet is very necessary for this time. If we can get an Internet connection, we can communicate every day and do more awareness programs and give more information. 

A few people know about COVID-19, but the mass number of people who don't know are living in fear.

If you follow the rules, you can protect your family. But they don't have this information. They are always thinking, Maybe coronavirus will attack us and we will die. They are always living in fear.

So it's a very frustrating moment, not only for them, but also for the activists like me. We cannot give hope because we cannot communicate with them in real time.

ALEX WOODSON: How much do people in the camp know about COVID-19? Are they aware of the specific symptoms? Obviously the symptoms can look like flu or they can look like they have a cold.

RAZIA SULTANA: No. When the announcement came from Bangladesh, maybe after one week a little bit of information spread in the camp, but suddenly all communication stopped, without announcement.  The non-governmental organizations shut down and the staff stopped going. It stopped suddenly.

Those who have the actual information are, you can say, 1 percent or 2 percent—especially the youth who have mobile phones and who can communicate with the city, who know about this—but others do not. It's like 10 percent know and 90 percent don't know; 90 percent don't have any idea about it.

But one thing I believe is that bad news spreads very fast. They know about the coronavirus, that it is a deadly disease—they know about that—but they don't have any idea how to prevent this or how to secure their lives.

There are some who always trying to communicate with us—they can connect with us by phone maybe during in the day. A hundred times we have to call them.

This is really a hard time for us also because we are also in lockdown. It's like when we want to send one single bit of information we have to follow so many steps. One person you have to call and say, "Tell him to call me," and otherwise "upload this video and send it and hand over this one." It's such a mess. It's like we are living in the jungle. Sometimes I feel, It's not so far, but the camp is totally disconnected from the normal world.

ALEX WOODSON: I'm so sorry. Where are you right now?

RAZIA SULTANA: I'm in Chittagong, but I was in Cox's Bazar two weeks ago. But I couldn't find any way to go to the camp. I am really grateful to those people who are still within the camp and who distribute some hygienic items and do some awareness sessions. They do very good work. But it is few. We need more. But I think if they would open the Internet it would be easier for us.

ALEX WOODSON: How can you, how can international organizations, or how can different governments work toward opening the Internet for these camps? What are some of the things that can be done to change the situation?

RAZIA SULTANA: I have always from the beginning been telling people, "Please clear the Internet so that we can talk with them."

If anyone sees these kinds of symptoms, these people, where do they go? They don't have information. Maybe some NGO creates some medical team, but a medical team is very limited—maybe 10 people, 15 people—and they cannot reach the whole camp. So it's very scary.

The Internet access is essential now so they can communicate and, if they say, "Something has happened over there," you can come or give them advice about what they can do.

Another issue you also mentioned before we talked is about the quarantine, about social distancing. It's impossible. This is a small area with a huge number of people. If we find someone with symptoms, we cannot say, "You have to maintain social distance." This is not possible. This is impossible.

Two days ago, I saw in the news that in Cox's Bazar they are creating, I think, 1,700 isolation beds and some quarantine.

But what about the communication with the Rohingya? Only creating a medical center, an isolation center, is not enough. We have to reach those people to give them awareness about the symptoms.

I am also afraid because before the announcement there were so many foreigners who recently came and they visited the camp, so if anyone carried this kind of disease—but we don't know who the carriers are.

It is very sad. Bangladesh announced the emergency just recently, just three weeks ago, but before that there were no restrictions.

Also in that area there are so many host communities. I believe if it affects the Rohingya, the host communities also cannot escape. All will suffer from this.

So we need more initiatives, more approaches. And with the recent issue about the boat people, we are worried even more.

ALEX WOODSON: You were saying before that some beds that can be isolated have been built. What's the plan—obviously we hope this doesn't happen—if there is a COVID-19 outbreak in the camps?

RAZIA SULTANA: I am sure they are very concerned about this issue, and they know if it affects the camp no one can escape this disease. So it's very dangerous. 

They take so many initiatives and steps, but I don't know how they can implement them because there are no experts, there is not that much training, even in the whole of Bangladesh, and we have a lack of medical teams and doctors.

So I don't know. Maybe they can create isolation centers, but how can they prevent this? How can they control this? That is my first question for you.

In the announcements, in the newspaper, we have seen, "Okay, wash your hands." But what is the reality? Do they know what the next part is or do they have any plans for how they can prevent this for these people in the Cox's Bazar? 

ALEX WOODSON: What are you going to be doing in the next few weeks and the next few months? You talked a little bit about how you are trying to communicate with people in the camps. Is that going to continue? Do you have other plans? What do the next few weeks look like for you?

RAZIA SULTANA: I am still doing awareness sessions. Yesterday I finished my second session, and after two days I will start again. 

We have had communication with several groups, youth groups and women's groups. From the beginning, when we knew about the COVID-19, at that time we also gave some training. When our staff frequently can go in the camp, we give some information about some groups. 

Suddenly we don't know what will happen with this kind of visitation. We never have faced this kind of difficulty. So, whatever we have, we are just giving basic information to them and basic hygienic items. But this is not enough.

So we try our best, and I will not stop my sessions. Any way we can we will try to give awareness and video clips. So let's see. 

But I know there is a bunch of people—and I am glad the Rohingya youth group and women's groups are doing their own efforts—and we are giving support however we can.

ALEX WOODSON: I know this is really tough for you, but thank you for speaking with us today.

RAZIA SULTANA: Thanks, Alex.

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