As COVID-19 cases grow, displaced Rohingya face new threats that reflect continued persecution

COVID-19 has become an inescapable reality. At the time of writing, 28 April, there were 146-recorded cases Myanmar and 5,913 cases in Bangladesh. While for Oxfam, such announcements have been anticipated given the global nature of the pandemic, the spread of the virus in the both countries has nonetheless brought with it further fears and uncertainty for Rohingya refugees living on obth sides of the border.

Habiba* washes her son at an Oxfam water pump. Habiba lives in Kutupalong Camp with her three children. Oxfam installed four hand pumps near to her home. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam (*name changed)

The virus is set to have a potentially devastating impact on the hundreds of thousands of people who have fled the violence and conflict.  

Oxfam has ongoing humanitarian programming in many internal displacement camps, including the confined camps in Rakhine where an estimated 120,000 displaced Rohingya people have remained for the past eight years.

We see first-hand the extremely limited access to health care and other essential services internally displaced people (IDPs) in Myanmar have, as well as the underlying health challenges they face, from chronic malnutrition to cramped living conditions in inadequate shelters. All of these factors could significantly worsen if there is a COVID-19 outbreak. In the confined camps in Rakhine, basic preventative measures, such social distancing and self-isolation, remain impossible - with ten or more family members often living in a single shelter that measures about nine by five foot.

Please send doctors

Even hand washing is out of reach for some in the camps in light of the extremely limited water supply. Based on our ongoing discussions with the Rohingya community, before the threat of COVID-19 became apparent, it was already clear that they faced major challenges in terms of basic health care:

“Living here in the camps, everything gives us diseases. The camp infects everyone with diseases, and I have no money to see a doctor. We must sit and bear it and suffer without any medication. We have no means to go see the doctor even when we are sick.” — Rohingya woman, 28 years old, displaced and living in the confined camps in central Rakhine, Myanmar.

“Please send good doctors to the camps with enough medicine because here in the camps people here are losing their lives day by day. The camps make it very easy for people to contract diseases, but difficult to get medical treatment. The doctors do not see the patients and do not help us. And the patients are not receiving the right medicine for the illnesses they suffer.” — Rohingya woman, 35 years old, displaced and living in confined camps in central Rakhine, Myanmar

These women’s words reflect the extremely limited medical care in the camp, with doctors available only sporadically, and severe restrictions on the ability of people to leave the camps and access more specialised services at the nearby hospital. If someone in the camps falls ill and needs more specialised care, they must seek and receive official permission, which often takes several days, and they must pay a security escort to travel with them to the hospital located only a few kilometres away in town.

The complicated, time consuming and expensive process means that many are simply unable to access vital health care, even in an emergency. In this context, if people do become sick with the COVID-19 virus, it is likely they will have little to no ability to isolate themselves or seek professional care.

The possibility of an outbreak of the virus in these camps became that much clearer this week as a cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in Cox’s Bazar, the town located across the border in Bangladesh, which is home to the sprawling refugee camps where one million Rohingya refugees currently live after fleeing horrific violence in Myanmar in 2017.

Shim*, 12, holds an Oxfam food parcel she received from a distribution at Kutupalong Camp, Bangladesh. Credit: Tommy Trenchard/Oxfam

Oxfam is urgently scaling up humanitarian work

This is why we are urgently scaling up our humanitarian efforts in the Rohingya camps in Myanmar and Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh.

With our partner Solidarités International, we are increasing public health promotion activities, including the urgent construction of an additional 1000 hand-washing stations, the distribution of 17,000 pieces of soap every month along with other basic hygiene items and sharing essential information about the prevention of the virus in Rohingya language through community networks and channels.

Similarly, in Cox’s Bazar, we have intensified and escalated hygiene promotion efforts, including prevention messaging with communities, while enhancing water and sanitation facilities. In a welcome move, the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner in Cox’s Bazar designated water and sanitation services as essential ones, enabling us to continue to deliver life-saving measures during the COVID-19 crisis. Continued humanitarian access for life saving activities in the camps on both sides of the border remains critical.

While Oxfam, along with governments and other humanitarian organisations are mobilising quickly to prevent the spread of the virus, another concern that could significantly worsen the spread of the COVID-19 virus is the shutdown of Internet services. Unlike most places in 2020, where we can check our mobile phones for immediate information about the virus, how to prevent it and what to do if you feel ill, Rohingya refugees have experienced the shutdown of internet services on both sides of the border.

Health crisis, human rights crisis

None of these issues — from the lack of protection, to the lack of essential services, to the lack of information — are new. Rohingya communities have been faced with an entirely precarious existence for years, struggling to access the very basics to survive. However, the threat of COVID-19 is putting the human rights crisis faced by Rohingya living in camps on both sides of the border into sharper focus. It starkly shows how equal rights are central to ensuring each human life is valued and protected, whether it’s amid a pandemic or not.

It’s by focusing on the rights of Rohingya and other displaced communities that we can increase the effectiveness of COVID-19 prevention efforts in the immediate and reduce vulnerabilities over the long term.

Alison Kent, Director of Advocacy & Communications, Oxfam in Myanmar.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.
Together, we can save lives.

Earth Day 2020: COVID-19 and Climate Emergency harshly exploit our unequal world.

Today is International Earth Day – one that we will remember against the backdrop of a global pandemic that has shown how interconnected our world and the people living in it are.

Rohingya refugee Ayesha collecting water for her family in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh. Photo: Maruf Hasan/Oxfam

This year’s theme is the climate crisis – “the biggest challenge to the future of humanity and the life-support systems that make our world habitable.” Yet, moves to address the climate crisis have been lackluster at best and any sense of urgency to act – championed by our young people – now seems to be waning as the climate crisis does not threaten our immediate survival, unlike COVID-19.

With each day, more of us are being personally affected by the coronavirus. In every family, community and country, wherever we may be, we know we must take care of each other.

It threatens us all, but it endangers people living in poverty and vulnerable situations the most - exposing and exploiting the extreme inequalities that define our world – much in the same way as the climate crisis does.

While the richest in countries across the globe have access to healthcare and cash to get by, most of humanity faces both of these crises with neither. One in two people struggle daily to survive, and changing climates have grossly impacted millions of lives this year alone – locusts, lack of food and water, extreme weather events collapsing homes and livelihoods, and bush fires. Our recent research shows that the economic fallout from the coronavirus pandemic could push half a billion more people into poverty, setting the fight against poverty back by up to 30 years in some parts of the world, including Africa. Not only will this make it more difficult to rebuild post-virus, but it will also greatly reduce poorer countries’ ability to respond to climate change.

As a network that fights inequality to end poverty and injustice in more than 90 countries, Oxfam is doing its part to tackle the coronavirus. We’re working non-stop to support the most vulnerable – delivering clean water, sanitation and public health promotion programmes, ensuring people have food to eat and getting cash to those most in need, among other life-saving initiatives. More than ever we rely upon the compassion and generosity of supporters new and old to do so.

Wael Algadi (PHP Pfficer) at hygiene kit distribution in Alkoba IDPs Camp, Taiz, Yemen. Photo: Hitham Ahmed / Oxfam

We know that only ambitious political action by our governments – acting together – can overcome this crisis. Many governments are acting quickly, but within their borders. We need governments to scale up their response to levels never seen in our lifetimes. They must unleash a global public health and emergency response to save lives, and the largest ever economic stimulus for people to help their families through this crisis.

Every government, institution and person must play its part and those with the broadest shoulders should bear most of the cost - we need suspension and cancellation of poorer nations’ debt payments.

We’re indebted to all frontline workers - health workers and humanitarians, carers, supermarket workers and neighbours – and all those who we now rely upon to hold up our world. We’re in this together - to stop a catastrophe and to shift irreversibly towards a sustainable, more equal and kinder world.

Most importantly, when we overcome the threat of COVID-19, we need to mobilise the same level of political and public will and compassion to begin the process of rectifying the harm we have caused our planet and environment and kick start a future that offers hope for everyone.

Let’s hope that Earth Day 2020 marks a turning point and we move forward together to beat poverty and inequality, and for a sustainable and fair world for everyone woman, man and child.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.
Together, we can save lives.

Trapped by the blockade, the people of Gaza cannot escape COVID-19

The recent lockdowns and restrictions make it feel like a strange time to be alive. Sadly, for Palestinians, it’s part and parcel of the struggle of everyday life. And now, as COVID-19 spreads across the globe, they face a new threat.

Pandemic or no pandemic, Gaza is already experiencing a dire humanitarian crisis. A 13-year-long blockade has devastated the economy, caused widespread destruction and left most people largely cut off from the outside world.

Ahmed will take his donkey and cart out several times a week to fetch clean water. Photo: Kieran Doherty/Oxfam

With more than 5,000 people per square kilometre, the besieged enclave – where, as of 3rd April, there were 12 official cases of COVID-19 – is one of the most densely populated places on the planet. Social distancing is key to keeping the virus at bay but Palestinians living under the blockade are trapped. Poor water infrastructure also means that proper hand washing is often impossible.

Residents have nowhere to go and no means of avoiding transmission. In an area where one in eight people relies on life-saving aid, the virus would do untold damage to two million vulnerable people.

A major outbreak is likely to see the collapse of Gaza’s ailing health system, which is already overrun with patients suffering from waterborne diseases. Gaza is also dependent on Israel for critical medical cases, but the threat of COVID-19 has created a level of collaboration between Palestinians and Israelis that has rarely, if ever, been seen before.

As well as the health system implications, COVID-19 could further destroy the economy of Gaza, which already has an unemployment rate of 47 percent. Small shops have shut their doors due to the crisis and business-owners have no income to pay their staff or provide for their own families. With movement restricted even more to prevent a further spread of the virus in Gaza, many families are already finding themselves unable to put food on the table.

With our humanitarian staff in Gaza bracing themselves for the worst, funding is vital to ensure that the weak economy and health system won’t completely collapse

What Oxfam is doing

With the support of Irish Aid, our teams have mobilised to urgently respond to the threat of Covid-19 in Gaza. We are providing protection equipment for healthcare workers, beds for patients in quarantine centres, soap and other essential hygiene products. We’re also providing hygiene kits to vulnerable families through our partner organisations.

Oxfam staff receiving hygiene and protective gear items that will be distributed in quarantine centres. Photo: Sami Alhaw/Oxfam

Our water engineers are ensuring public water taps used by the most vulnerable families can be used safely. With no other source of clean water, these families are most at risk of catching the virus.

We’re helping the vulnerable families put food on the table and buy hygiene items and access clean water to protect them from the outbreak. We are currently maintaining 14 water filling points in vulnerable communities where between 35,000 and 70,000 people will need to rely on depending on the severity of the outbreak. In addition, we’re spreading awareness about best hygiene and health practices to avoid further spread of cases across the West Bank, where 148 cases of COVID-19 have been confirmed.

This disease knows no borders and does not discriminate. For the world’s poorest and most vulnerable, the worst is yet to come as the coronavirus begins to establish itself and spread quickly through communities powerless to stop it, without access to water, sanitation or healthcare.
Together, we can save lives.

COVID-19: Only if the most vulnerable are safe, are we all safe

The collective efforts to tackle the virus that we are seeing across Ireland and the UK have been impressive. However, it’s critical that we act now to prevent it spreading unchecked among the poorest and most vulnerable countries.

As former Liberian President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf said recently, coronavirus anywhere is a threat to people everywhere. Only if and until the most vulnerable are safe, are we all safe. We cannot afford to leave anyone behind.

In the face of a pandemic, it doesn’t matter where you come from or what language you speak. Nobody is immune to this virus – not royalty, not prime ministers.

The situation for the most vulnerable

While the wealthy can be tested and treated quickly with the help of functioning healthcare systems, millions of others face uncertainty in the midst of a global threat.

The world’s poorest communities are particularly vulnerable, as they already face multiple threats to their health and livelihoods. Nearly three billion people across the developing world have no access to clean water, while millions more don’t have adequate healthcare and live in crowded slums or refugee camps where social isolation is impossible.

We are concerned that COVID-19 will overwhelm poorer countries with weak public health systems. In Mali, for example, there are just three ventilators for one million people, while in Zambia, there is only one doctor for 10,000 people. Even more worrying is the prospect of the virus hitting refugee camps or anywhere else where people are already struggling to access healthcare or food.

View of a hospital in an internally-displaced people camp in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Photo: John Wessels/Oxfam

Women on the frontline

Women are on the frontline of infection risk – they make up 70 percent of health workers and carry out most unpaid care work, so it will most likely hit them the hardest.

Women also shoulder the vast burden of unpaid care which is bound to increase dramatically, whether caring for sick relatives or looking after children at home because schools are closed.

After working long days as a day care teacher in the Philippines, Rowena used to come home and do all the care work. Now, her husband helps cook, clean and mind their child. Photo: Jed Regala/Oxfam

What we need to tackle this crisis

Governments in rich countries have mobilised billions of dollars in no time to fight COVID-19 and its effects. They should now support poorer countries in making the strongest-possible preparations to fight the coronavirus health emergency.

We are urging the leaders of the G20 to urgently provide the necessary resources to reduce the loss of life and support those most vulnerable.

We need to double health spending in poor countries to prevent some 40 million deaths. That’s the estimate of how many people could die worldwide from coronavirus, according to Imperial College London, unless there is an urgent and coordinated global response.

Oxfam calculates that doubling the public health spending would cost nearly $160 billion (€145/£130bn). This is less than 10 percent of the US fiscal stimulus to fight coronavirus. The required investment is minute compared to the social and economic costs of inaction.

Immediate debt cancellation and aid funding for the 85 poorest countries, home to nearly half the world’s population, would enable them to take action to prevent the spread of the disease and improve health systems to care for those affected.

Our response to the virus

We are working with local partners, governments and key UN agencies to support our programme teams across more than 65 countries on how best to respond operationally to COVID-19.

This includes preventive measures especially for people in higher-risk environments such as refugee camps or crowded urban areas.

In Cox’s Bazar, for instance, Rohingya refugees face the double threat of COVID-19 and the imminent monsoon rains which will turn the camps in Bangladesh into infected rivers of mud. We’re distributing soap and building showers, toilets and handwashing stations to prevent the spread of diseases including coronavirus. In addition, we’ve recruited more than 600 Rohingya volunteers to help us reach other refugees with hygiene information.

We’re doing all we can to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the world’s most vulnerable communities. You can help us save lives.

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COVID-19: Your local Oxfam shop needs you

Last week, for the first time in over 60 years, our shops across the island of Ireland closed. We made this difficult decision to protect our staff and volunteers, and to do our part in stopping the spread of COVID-19.

Our shops play an invaluable role in raising much-needed funds for our work worldwide – they help ensure we can continue to protect and support some of the most vulnerable people in the world.

However, they’re not just vital to our organisation, each one is community hub that has served and been supported by you for decades.

With our shops closed, we need your support now more than ever.

At this time of unprecedented change for all of us, our mission remains the same – to let you, our supporters, know how you can help communities facing extreme poverty and disaster. Life-saving work that is only possible because of you.

We believe that sharing the stories and experiences of the communities we work with is even more important now as we monitor and prepare for the potential rapid spread of COVID-19 in the countries in which we work. For people living in flimsy shelters in refugee camps and in communities without adequate hygiene and health infrastructure, the impact of an outbreak doesn’t bear thinking about.

We’re urgently appealing for your help and want to share some ways that you can continue to support your local Oxfam shop, even if its doors are closed.

We still want the things you don’t! As we all use this time to declutter, please continue to support your local Oxfam:

·       Save your donations and drop them in when we’re back up and running – for all of us, hopefully this will be sooner rather than later

You can also help us continue to raise vital funds:

·       Make a one-off donation or setup a monthly one if you can

·       Set up a Facebook fundraiser in solidarity with your local Oxfam shop – and help continue its crucial fundraising work!

Our shops play a central role in supporting our emergency appeals. Right now, we are trying to raise funds for Rohingya refugees in Cox’s Bazar – the largest refugee camp in the world. As we battle COVID-19, they are preparing to enter into monsoon season, which brings with it a serious threat to life and infrastructure in the camp. Our gravest concern is the destruction of sanitation facilities which are vital to halt the spread of deadly diseases such as COVID-19.

Our shops have been a part of local communities as far back as 1956. That is 64 years of providing people with affordable and sustainable clothing, books, furniture and more.

Thank you for all of the ways you’ve supported us over those 64 years from donating and shopping to volunteering your time and talent.

I hope you will stand with us now and understand why we are asking for your continued support through this global storm that we are all weathering together.