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The atmosphere of the camps in Cox’s Bazar may feel like a vibrant Bangladeshi city at first. Tom-toms (a type of auto rickshaw) storm down the road, avoiding at the very last moment people carrying metres-long bamboo poles on their shoulders and kids running after chickens, while the smell of freshly-made bread attracts shoppers, fisherman sell their catch of the day, teenagers play cane ball and even barbers ensure customers’ beards look sharp.
But the first impression of the camps is misleading. It is only once you’ve ventured among the narrow alleyways and got lost among tightly packed shelters surrounded by piles of rubbish, or after you’ve reached a hilltop with a 360-degree view over thousands of tiny homes built on unstable land, that the reality becomes clear.
Since 25 August 2017, more than 700,000 people have arrived in Bangladesh, fleeing violence in Myanmar’s Rakhine state and triggering one of the region’s largest, most complex and protracted humanitarian crises in decades. Today, close to one million people are living in an extremely precarious situation and continue to face instability, health issues, poverty, natural and climatic hazards, and congested living conditions.
Sadly, this animated life in the camps that I witnessed in October 2019 when I visited the district has now vanished. Only a few shops are left open, very few tom-toms drive through the camps and no children can be found playing outside.
It may have only been a matter of time before COVID-19 reached Cox’s Bazar, but it has - imposing yet more challenges to the lives of people already living in extremely precarious situations.
Nearly one million people are living in 13 square kilometres, making it one of the most densely populated places on earth. Implementing physical distancing in such overcrowded camps is extremely challenging, if not almost impossible. The unhygienic conditions, including lack of access to hygiene facilities and safe water, is a major concern.
How do you wash your hands frequently if you don’t have soap or access to water? How do you avoid crowds if you are all picking up food from one aid agency? How will people in camps be quarantined, and where? Will they be able to get tested and looked after?
The clock is ticking
With the first few cases of COVID-19 confirmed in the camps, it’s now a race to avoid another humanitarian disaster and to protect the people already living in such vulnerable conditions who have undergone such huge trauma just to get to Cox’s Bazar.
People like Rashida, who is only 18 years old and was separated from her family in the chaos of fleeing Myanmar. The camps are difficult for her, but places like the Bangladesh Red Crescent Society’s (BDRCS) Dignity, Access, Participation, Safety (DAPS) Centre have helped her to find a renewed sense of safety, confidence and happiness.
Rashida says, “I usually feel unsafe, unsettled and struggle a lot, but when I come to the centre, I am happy, I can learn new skills, chat with other women and share my suffering and sadness.”
A safe space for survivors of violence and at-risk groups, the centre provides psychosocial support and the teaching of new skills such as sewing and fish net making, and for young women who are survivors of gender-based violence, it helps them to meet other women facing similar problems, to share their experiences and to learn from one another.
Now that the risk of COVID-19 has become clear, non-essential services have been suspended within the camps, the DAPS Centre being one of them. This is a devastating blow to those who have come to rely on the programme and its staff.
This is why the Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement has been working around the clock. We are running 12 different health facilities inside the camps and in the adjoining area and
disseminating consistent and accurate messaging and distribution of hygiene materials. Cyclone preparedness activities are being undertaken simultaneously with work to prevent COVID-19, as the annual threat of the cyclone season looms.
Now, back in New Zealand and safe from COVID-19, I keep thinking of Rashida, Jaynab, Abdul, Shifika, Hafaz, Rohima and many more who welcomed me into their home and shared their stories of courage, determination and hope. People who, along with another million more, deserve to be remembered by those of us lucky enough to live in a safe and comfortable place like New Zealand.