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Covid-19 and the Rohingya Refugees: Devotion, Disinformation and Disease

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh face many health risks including malnutrition, poor sanitation and inadequate medical facilities, Nurul Huda Sakib of Jahangirnagar University and Faria Ahmed of Bangladesh University of Professionals in Development Studies observe. The most pressing threat is Covid-19: The lack of awareness and understanding of the pandemic and a reliance on faith over fact have led to the spread of rumors and misinformation in the camps. This has put the refugees at high risk of infection, as first-hand accounts of development workers and refugees themselves have shown.

Covid-19 and the Rohingya Refugees: Devotion, Disinformation and Disease

Lining up for food in Kutupalong camp, Cox’s Bazar: Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh face health risks, including malnutrition, poor sanitation, inadequate medical facilities and now Covid-19 (Credit: Richard Juilliart / Shutterstock.com)

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. 

Refugee camp hospital: The lack of awareness and understanding of Covid-19 and a reliance on faith over fact have led to the spread of rumors and misinformation about the coronavirus (Credit: Richard Juilliart / Shutterstock.com)

Religious beliefs beget skepticism

Most Rohingyas are devout Muslims and believe that their faith will support them through the pandemic and that they would not need to seek medicine or medical care. Others, especially women, are distrustful of doctors, believing their motivation is to sterilize the Rohingyas by using Covid-19 treatment as a pretext. “Brother,” said one man, “we are a persecuted nation. Coronavirus is the wrath of Allah for the disbelievers; this disease is not for us. This disease is for the kafirs (unbelievers) who do not believe in Allah.”  

Call to prayer: Makeshift mosque in Camp 16, Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar (Credit: Brennan Clarke / Shutterstock.com)

Call to prayer: Makeshift mosque in Camp 16, Ukhia, Cox’s Bazar (Credit: Brennan Clarke / Shutterstock.com)

Many in the community are more inclined to rely on religious therapies rather than on conventional medicine. Asked what treatment he had received, one man replied that the imams “are very handy as they give out amulets and holy water and recite recitations.” Another responded that he relied on traditional remedies. “We take herbal medicines. For example, we use certain herbal dry leaves in our tea to cure illnesses such as fever, headache, cold and cough. Furthermore, for a healthy body, we take one type of bamboo powder.”

Religious illiteracy – the misreading of scripture and holy texts – can result in prejudices that misrepresent both religious principles and human narratives. With the blind belief that values are “preset” by a higher authority, an “irrationality” can emerge that is counter to science. Religion can not only amplify embedded misperceptions and prejudices but can also combat them if religious leaders take it upon themselves to educate and inform a community.

Wise religious leaders warn, entreat and teach their devotees to focus on common humanity. They should not advocate questionable cures for Covid-19 or promote apocalyptic ideas that raised levels of fear and mistrust. In times of crisis, religious leaders and other traditional community actors are often well positioned to respond and convey knowledge and teachings to their society and thus, should take responsibility for fighting misinformation, false messages, and rumors. Laying out the facts will minimize anxiety and stigma, the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised. Disinformation, falsehoods, and rumors may be dangerous if promoted by community and religious leaders. This is what is happening among the Rohingyas today.

Religious skepticism has long been rife among the Rohingya refugees, many of who are unwilling to accept that their faith leaders may be putting forward false or misleading information or advocating unsafe practices. In an interview, one man said: “We don't spread any rumors. We say what is true and we truly believe in it.” Yet rumors thrive around the camps, development workers say. After many of the refugees came to believe that those testing positive for Covid-19 would be killed, they began to avoid all NGO workers.

As a result of this convergence of religious devotion, disinformation and disease, the Rohingyas are confronting the coronavirus pandemic severely handicapped. After decades of oppression and poverty, they are distrustful of the outside world and socially and intellectually ill-equipped to cope with a major public health crisis. They are poorly served by their religious authorities, who disseminate misinformation and spread baseless rumors and preach the believe that the will of God will determine a person’s susceptibility to the virus.

If the spread of the coronavirus among the refugees is to be controlled, Bangladesh authorities and development workers will have to enlist willing religious practitioners and Rohingya community leaders to debunk myths, put out accurate information and convince camp dwellers to adhere to good hygienic practices such as wearing masks and frequently washing their hands. If fighting fiction stirred up by religious fervor with plain facts fails, the humanitarian crisis will worsen and the Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh will be in even deeper peril.

Opinions expressed in articles published by AsiaGlobal Online reflect only those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of AsiaGlobal Online or the Asia Global Institute

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