Amid coronavirus, a Rohingya refugee reflects on camp life under lockdown
Amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, Ro Yassin tells UNHCR what it's like to live in lockdown in a crowded camp.
Before the COVID-19 lockdown, refugees packed the busy streets of the camps in Cox's Bazar.
© Ro Yassin Abdoumonab
With over 13 million confirmed cases of COVID-19 globally, as well as over 570,000 deaths, the coronavirus pandemic has upended lives across the world. Refugees and displaced persons are especially vulnerable to the disease, as many live in crowded conditions with fragile health systems and limited sanitation facilities.
Ro Yassin Abdoumonab, 28, fled Rakhine State, Myanmar for safety in Bangladesh in September 2017. He is now one of the approximately 860,000 Rohingya refugees living in the densely populated camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. Since the first refugee in the camps tested positive for COVID-19 on 14 May, there have been 62 confirmed cases and 6 deaths among the refugee population.
Amid the COVID-19 global pandemic, Ro Yassin tells UNHCR what it’s like to live in lockdown in a crowded camp.
Can you describe your shelter? Who do you share the space with, and how much room do you have?
There are six family members living in my shelter, including me. Our shelter is not very big, but we’re managing. There are two rooms for living and sleeping, as well as an adjacent room that we use as a kitchen.
Are you able to leave your shelter?
Yes, I can leave my shelter; I’m allowed to go to the market to buy things twice a week, to distribution points once a month, and to health care centres. I can also go to see my relatives in the neighbouring camps. However, I’m not allowed to go to places further out like Cox’s Bazar [town] or Chittagong, where refugees are restricted from visiting.
What are the main challenges of prolonged confinement in such a space?
The main challenge is living in a small shelter with so many people; there is not enough space to live. What’s more, most of the homes here have a roof and walls made of tarpaulin, so the hotter the sun, the more heat we suffer underneath it.
Another big challenge is that there has been no internet connectivity in the camps for almost ten months. We’re not able to connect with our relatives and the wider world to know what’s going on in this critical moment. In this lockdown, we must be provided with the internet to be able to communicate with the world. Without the internet, it’s like being in a dark room which has windows that don’t let in any light.
What measures are you taking to avoid infection and stay healthy?
I wash my hands properly, in particular before and after having food. I practise social distancing and wear a mask to cover my nose and mouth. Most importantly, I stay at home and try to advise people to follow the rules to not get sick.
Are you doing anything in particular to keep yourself occupied or entertained during confinement?
Yes, I’m doing several things to keep myself entertained. I make short films related to COVID-19, especially ones that make people aware of how to take care of themselves and others to prevent this deadly virus.
I also do some teaching. In this lockdown, everything is closed except for the emergency services. I don’t want the children to lose their future. I think the children will forget the lessons which were taught to them by their teachers, so I try to make them practice and guide them as much as I can. And I manage to make them sit three feet apart in the room.
I also try to write poems. Through my poetry, I can let the world know what my people are suffering now, and what we have suffered in my country.
What are your major concerns or fears about the coming weeks and months?
My major concerns are the rising numbers of people infected by the coronavirus in Bangladesh. It is a country that is densely populated. So it is very easy for the virus to transmit because many people have to live together in one place. Nearly one million refugees are taking shelter in Bangladesh.
Once the virus spreads here, the world’s largest refugee camp, I fear that many refugees will be infected as there are many of us living in a very small space.
What assistance have you received from UNHCR or other actors during the current crisis?
I have received soap, handwashing gel, detergent and other hygiene things to keep us healthy and safe during the current crisis. UNHCR and other organizations have been organizing campaigns to make Rohingya people aware what the coronavirus is, how does it work, how to prevent it and what things we need to do to stay safe. UNHCR and other organizations are doing their level best to help us and so we are grateful for that.
We have all been deeply saddened by the COVID-related deaths among the refugee community. How is the mood in the community? How are you feeling?
The mood of the Rohingya people in the camp is not as good as it was before. People were not panicking a lot when they heard that there were patients with coronavirus inside the refugee camp. But when people heard that the first man had died from COVID-19, people became scared. They are in fear and panic about it.
The main feeling of the people is just fear. They pray to Almighty to save them from this deadly virus. They know that it will be a huge disaster if the virus keeps spreading here.
I am feeling very upset about the situation. We are almost one million Rohingya people living here, so it is very hard to cope with the situation. In my family, we have six family members sharing the same shelter which is 10 square metres. So it is very cramped and impossible to maintain social distance. Plus, people have to go outside to do daily things to survive. But whether we go home or stay outside, it is crowded with people.