Women in Bangladesh are promoting hygiene in the world’s largest refugee settlement to prevent the new coronavirus from spreading there, aid workers said, after the nation reported its first case of the disease.
A confirmed case of the new coronavirus on the Greek island of Lesbos sparked fears about the impact of an outbreak in refugee camps from Mexico to France, where people live in dire conditions with poor hygiene and little medical care.
So far there are no reported cases of the virus in Bangladesh’s densely-populated Cox’s Bazar camps, but medics are setting up isolation units in hospitals and teaching children about cleanliness through a network of mostly women volunteers.
“(Women will) help carry out systematic preventative health and health promotion messaging in their communities,” said Louise Donovan, spokeswoman of the U.N.’s refugee agency.
Around 700,000 Rohingya refugees who arrived in Bangladesh in 2017 in a mass exodus from neighboring Myanmar live in huts built out of plastic and bamboo in an area half the size of Manhattan.
They face overstretched and poorly-resourced health services which is “why we have been advocating for refugees to be included in national preparedness and response plans,” said Donovan.
Bangladesh confirmed its first three cases of coronavirus on March 8 and postponed a major public event marking the centenary of the country’s founder.
Rohingya women, many of whom suffered sexual violence in Myanmar and who now run most of the camps’ households, are uniquely positioned to spread awareness about the disease, said Razia Sultana, a Rohingya lawyer.
“More than 70 percent of the people in the camps are women and children. These children will pick up habits from their mothers, so it’s important to get as many women trained as possible,” said Sultana.
Data released by Chinese authorities regarding deaths from the new coronavirus suggest fewer women are dying than men, with some scientists citing hormonal differences.
Shamima Bibi, a refugee who runs several schools, said that she has started telling students to “stay as clean as possible” in order to not get infected.
“Not just in class but in other places in the camps as well, we are telling everyone to wash their hands and cover their face while sneezing and do whatever we can to stay safe,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Bibi said people in the camps are not “excessively worried” about the virus but have been cautious ever since Bangladesh confirmed the presence of the disease in Dhaka, about 400 km away.
The U.N. has trained hundreds of health staff to detect the infection in an attempt to provide early warnings should the virus spread to the camp, said Donovan.
If the virus takes hold, refugees can also be referred to a hospital outside the camps in Cox’s Bazar, said Mahbub Alam Talukder, the government’s Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner.
“We have prepared well and everything is under control,” he said.
Reporting by Naimul Karim for the Thomson Reuters Foundation, that covers the lives of people around the world who struggle to live freely or fairly.