Rohingya Crisis: Facing COVID-19 in a refugee camp

Carl Adams is the former Country Director for Medair in Bangladesh. From March 2019 to September 2020, Carl led Medair’s team providing emergency assistance to Rohingya refugees living in Kutupalong Camp.

The Rohingya, who fled horrific violence in Myanmar back in 2017, now live in the largest refugee camp in the world. As he arrives back in his home of New Zealand, Carl reflects on COVID-19 and the impact on families in Kutupalong.

Over the past five months, change has cut to the very core of our daily lives. On 26 March, Bangladesh put in place a nationwide lockdown with the goal of breaking the chain of transmission of COVID-19. Over the next ten days, the Rohingya Refugee Camps drastically adjusted to pared-back services – first to ‘essential’ services, and then to ‘critical’ services only.

Movement of humanitarian workers in and out of the camps was reduced, and gathering of Rohingya people inside the camps was limited in order to slow the spread of the virus into the camps. We all feared that once the virus reached the camps – a place so crowded that physical distancing is impossible and safe hygiene is very difficult to practice – it would spread rapidly.

Sitting in meetings in early April, the magnitude of what we were facing really hit me. Statistical modelling coming out of the renowned Johns Hopkins University and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine confirmed our worst fears – in a case of high-transmission of the virus, humanitarian agencies had fewer than 5% of the hospital beds that would be needed for COVID-19 patients, and no intensive care facilities.

Compounding this, while responding to COVID-19, there was a real risk that regular health conditions might be sidelined – leading to illness and death that was otherwise preventable. With the onset of COVID-19, the Rohingya people were now facing a crisis within a crisis.

The crowded conditions in Kutupalong Refugee Camp make social distancing and isolation significantly challenging. ©Medair

The reduction of humanitarian services hit hard.  So many of the basic services that people relied on were no longer available – services like safe places for children to play and learn, protection and support for survivors of family violence, shelter and infrastructure assistance that makes the camp a more safe and secure place to stay, or nutrition support for mothers and kids under 5. Families tried to cope the best they could, staying in their one-room bamboo and tarpaulin shelters.

Aid agencies re-prioritised their resources to the fight against COVID-19 – setting up quarantine and treatment centres for suspected and confirmed patients, scaling up the hospital bed capacity by nearly 10-fold in a matter of months. At the same time, we all had to rethink how to continue delivering services that save lives and preserve dignity, while also protecting ourselves and people accessing services from COVID-19

Throughout the restrictions, our staff and volunteers were determined to continue supporting malnourished children; focusing on those under the age of five.  This was critical to improving the health of these children and keeping them out of hospital care – malnutrition not addressed can cause a raft of different health issues and even be fatal. 

A mother learns how to measure her son’s nutritional status in Kutupalong Refugee Camp. © Medair

We also worked to maintain regular, non-COVID-19 health services. It was important that people could continue to access care for regular health conditions – keeping up immunisations, pre- and ante-natal care, family planning, general doctor visits and pharmacy services, particularly for people with chronic diseases. We kept both of our health posts open and implemented strong protocols to identify suspected COVID-19 cases and refer people for additional services.

COVID-19 hit us during the monsoon season – a time where heavy rains turn the camps to mud and the flimsy bamboo and tarpaulin shelters are frequently damaged or destroyed. After each deluge, our staff survey the damage and helped around 700 households to repair or rebuild their shelters.

Our staff and volunteers were literally on the front lines of this pandemic. Every day they diligently went about protecting themselves while playing vital roles in community outreach, sharing important information and providing assistance that inevitably saved lives and helped uphold people’s dignity in an emergency that affected nearly everyone on the planet.

As the leader of this team, I could not be prouder of what was done during this incredibly challenging time. It is one thing to be a humanitarian and to support others when they are facing hardship; it is something quite different to do so when you are placing yourself at risk and having concern for the wellbeing of your own family who remain at home.

One of our frontline staff told me “I used to think being a humanitarian is a job, but now I feel that being a humanitarian is who I am. I would never be in this crazy situation if it was simply a job to me – somehow, I have skills that can help during this time, and it feels like the right thing to do – so I will do it”.

A Medair Volunteer participates in a distribution of essential household items in Kutupalong Refugee Camp. © Medair

Prolonged reduction of services in the Rohingya refugee camps is having its toll. Life is tough, people are tired, and COVID-19 remains as much of a threat as ever. In some important areas, hard-won progress is being lost; improvements to living conditions, increases in vaccination coverage, reduction in rates of malnutrition; all are at risk of back-sliding.

While the rest of the world struggles with the impact of COVID-19, most of us are not facing the precarity that the Rohingya people are. We must not forget them – their immediate fight against COVID-19, as well as their struggle for safe, dignified and voluntary return to their homes in Myanmar.


Carl Adams is the former Country Director for Medair in Bangladesh.
To learn more about the Rohingya Crisis, click here.
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Medair is an international humanitarian NGO that provides emergency relief and recovery services to families made vulnerable by natural disasters, conflicts, and other crises. In Bangladesh, Medair works in partnership with World Concern.

This content was produced with resources gathered by Medair field and Global Support Office staff. The views expressed herein are those solely of Medair and should not be taken, in any way, to reflect the official opinion of any other organisation.