Rohingya men and boys sit in front of a small shop in a refugee camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Azad Mohammed

The Bangladeshi government is denying the hundreds of thousands of Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar a vital protection from Covid-19 infection: access to information.

Bangladeshi authorities confirmed the first case of Covid-19 in Cox’s Bazar on March 24, adding to the more than three dozen other confirmed cases elsewhere in the country. That diagnosis puts the potentially deadly virus on the doorstep of the teeming camps where more than 700,000 Rohingya refugees have taken shelter since fleeing a campaign of widespread and systematic violence perpetrated by Myanmar security forces in late 2017. 

The Bangladeshi government has responded by preparing a Covid-19 testing lab in Cox’s Bazar and restricting all public activities in the camps to “emergency” functions related to access to food and medical services.

But Bangladeshi authorities through their official block on Internet access in the Cox’s Bazar camps have obstructed those refugees’ right to information on how to protect themselves from contracting the virus. Those restrictions also hobble the efforts of aid groups and government agencies effectively to communicate urgent health messaging to a Rohingya refugee community spread across 34 separate camps.

Also read: Myanmar urged to restore Internet during virus crisis

The government imposed the restrictions on telecommunication and Internet access in the Cox’s Bazar camps last September in response to the mass protests for accountability by Rohingya refugees on August 25, the second anniversary of the start of the bloodshed of 2017. The restrictions have included government directives to telecom service providers to cut services in the camps as well as efforts by security forces to destroy SIM cards and confiscate the mobile phones of Rohingya refugees.

The Bangladeshi government is already aware that these restrictions involve serious denials of fundamental human rights. United Nations human-rights experts warned last year that “these restrictions have been applied in a discriminatory manner against members of the Rohingya minority who are refugees in Bangladesh, but also that curfews and communications shutdowns could facilitate further serious human-rights abuses against them.”

And on March 19, the UN expert on the right to freedom of expression, David Kaye, issued a stark warning that “Internet access is critical at a time of crisis” and urged that all governments refrain from blocking it; “in those situations where Internet has been blocked, governments should, as a matter of priority, ensure immediate access to the fastest and broadest possible Internet service.”

Internet access restrictions in the Cox’s Bazar camps compound their existing risk of Covid-19 infection. The camps are  overcrowded and access to potable water to enable basic sanitation and preventive measures including frequent hand-washing remains precarious.

The seasonal timing of the pandemic also heightens the vulnerability of Rohingya refugees to infection. The pandemic is unfolding on the eve of Bangladesh’s April-November rainy season, when the immune systems of refugees in the camps are already degraded or at risk from rampant waterborne illnesses including upper- and lower-respiratory infections, tropical parasites, and acute diarrhea.

The Bangladeshi government has a vested national public health interest in ensuring conditions – including unrestricted access to Internet and telecommunications – that mitigate the risk of a serious outbreak of Covid-19 in the Cox’s Bazar camps. An outbreak in the camps would inevitably spread through the rest of the country, severely straining the capacity of the country’s health system, which the World Health Organization has cautioned already suffers from  “a shortage of human resources for health, high turnover and absenteeism of health workers, and poor maintenance of health facilities and medical equipment.”

The financial costs to address a widespread outbreak would also be crushing at a time when Bangladesh’s entire economy is under severe strain due to pandemic-related prevention measures and shutdowns across the world.

The reassuring news is that it will cost the Bangladeshi government nothing to restore essential Internet and telecommunications access to the Rohingya camps. But it must do so as soon as possible to mitigate the potential of a health disaster.

Phelim Kine is the director of research and investigations at Physicians for Human Rights and a former deputy director in Human Rights Watch’s Asia Division. He is also an adjunct professor in the Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute at Hunter College in New York.

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