Religious beliefs are a salient part of the lives of South Asians, and the community of about 1.1 million Rohingya Muslim refugees in Bangladesh is certainly no exception. Guided by their faith, many are not just skeptical of science or medicine but are simply unaware of basic public-health threats and how to prevent disease. Some are likely to consider risks such as the novel coronavirus as a hoax.
To counter this lack of knowledge and trust, the Bangladesh government, along with various international development agencies and non-government organizations (NGOs), have provided Rohingya refugees living in the country with access to accurate information about Covid-19, issued them personal protective equipment (PPE), and offered health and safety advice on how to avoid infection and what to do if they contract the coronavirus. Outreach staff and volunteers from the Rohingya refugee and Bangladeshi host communities, along with influential imams, span the refugee camps including Kutupalong, the largest such facility in the world, to raise awareness of the dangers. They are spreading the word through radio, videos, posters, leaflets and messenger on bicycles in three languages – Bengali, Burmese and Rohingya.
Yet the level of knowledge in the camps about Covid-19 remains low. Interviews with aid workers and refugees indicate that there is no widespread use of PPE, even though there is an adequate supply. Although the refugees wear face masks while visiting various offices, they do not wear them routinely in the camps. Many of the Rohingyas are simply not convinced of the seriousness or even of the reality of the epidemic. The women are among the most doubtful, some convinced that the coronavirus does not even exist. Many who have been infected by the virus deny their symptoms or make attempts to hide them. Because testing has been limited, it is not possible to determine how many Rohingya could be suffering from Covid-19. At the end of October, only 310 had tested positive, while nine had died and 113 were in isolation.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is working with the Bangladesh government and the Rohingyas to bridge the communication gap and provide them with accurate and timely information to protect and prepare themselves. But the awareness campaign has been met with resistance and suspicion. Just as the rest of the world has to deal with misinformation and rumor, the Rohingyas are also subjected the spread of misleading and false information by word of mouth. Some believe Covid-19 patients have been kidnapped and killed in hospitals. Some claim prayer and a special herbal tea will protect them. Others fear that they will be punished if they catch the disease. One aid worker recounted how a rumor spread that anyone found to be positive for Covid-19 would be killed. Since then, many in the camp have refused testing.