The unrelenting onslaught on the Rohingya: A COVID19 Reality

The onslaught of the COVID19 pandemic has brought upon us a troubling year. The potency of the virus has seen the health systems around the world fall under immense pressure. Additionally, the imposition of various restrictions on social and economic activities in order to contain the spread of the virus, have consequently exacerbated the misery of vulnerable groups worldwide. The bereft refugees are inherently a part of these groups and stand defenseless in what one might affirm as the greatest health emergency in over a century. The Rohingya are, as labelled by the international community, the most persecuted minority on earth and these victims of neglect stand on the crossroads of survival as the pandemic aggravates their plight. 

Rohingyas in Myanmar

The impact of the pandemic is seemingly limited in Myanmar, with the nation reporting  2150 official cases and 14 casualties as of September 10, 2020. This controlled aggregate is either a reflection of the limited testing capacity of an already fragile health system or of an early imposition of containment measures by the authorities. However, this does not imply that Myanmar has not been privy to the detrimental effects of the pandemic.The country is set to face severe economic and social predicament owing to its externally oriented economy. Furthermore, the pandemic and its consequent economic and political effects threaten to decimate the impoverished communities in the country.

An estimated 600,000 anguished members of the Rohingya community still live in the State of Rakhine, facing oppressive and systemic restrictions. Majority are placed under ‘apartheid’ like conditions in Internal Displacement Camps (IDCs), which typify detention camps aimed at isolating the community. They are faced with arbitrary restrictions on their freedom of movement and limited access to healthcare, education and basic livelihood, making them largely dependent on foreign aid. The appalling conditions of the IDCs make it highly susceptible to the virus as these impoverished camps are densely populated and lack basic sanitation, clean water and other infrastructural necessities. The densely crowded camps have made the elemental measure of social distancing an unaffordable luxury, moreover, it has been noted that sanitation facilities are present at the ration 40 people:1, and a source of water is used by 600 people, making these camps potential hotspots for outbreaks including the novel coronavirus. Furthermore, Rakhine is prone to floods and cyclones in the Monsoon season, the meager infrastructure of the IDCs entice these floods and water borne diseases reflecting upon its low resilience to natural hazards.

In the absence of access to healthcare facilities the Rohingya community stands impressionable against the virus, they have witnessed numerous succumb to treatable diseases over the years. The effete health infrastructure comprises two government run health centers bereft of able medical professionals and COVID testing facilities. Furthermore, the restricted access to healthcare is regulated bureaucratically and based upon a referral system, as a consequence of this structure coupled with chronic poverty, only 16 percent of the community has reportedly received medical care.

Adding to this reality, the community witnessed the unilateral announcement of a ceasefire by the Myanmar Military (Tatmadaw), which as proclaimed by them was to divert its actions towards containing the spread of the virus. However, such an announcement excluded the extension of the ceasefire to parts of the state of Rakhine and Chin, where they continue to battle the Arakan Army. Such an act portrays an emboldened stance of the Tatmadaw, which is intensifying its operations in the region. These operations are being conducted under the guise of “clearance operations”, the same terminology was used to describe its actions in 2017, which culminated into an operation eventuating in the annihilation of the Rohingya Community. The haunting tale of the Rohingyas seems to resonate among the Rakhine people, who have reportedly started fleeing their villages leading to a huge commotion in an already destitute circumstance. The Myanmar Government has imposed several restrictions in order to contain the spread of the virus, however, these measures are being used as a ruse to wreak further misery on the Rohingya community, it has been noted that Rohingya people are being subjected to physical harassment at checkpoints for not wearing face masks and the police has used this to rationalize extortion of money from them. The Government has not provided masks and adequate preventive instruments to the people living in IDPs.

Furthermore, the government has imposed an internet shutdown in various townships of Rakhine, citing it as an imperative measure amidst its armed confrontations in the region, and has defended its actions under Article 77 of Myanmar’s telecommunications law, which legitimize such actions during emergency situations. These prolonged and discriminative measures have lasted for over a year and currently stand imposed in eight townships, these sustained restrictions have led to a mass violation of human rights and presented further hindrance in containing the spread of the virus as it severely hampers communication, aid activities and awareness programs. These protracted restrictions on humanitarian aid stand fortified and the armed conflict presents further hindrance in its path, the death of a WHO worker, reportedly carrying COVID-19 samples, as a result of being hit by gunfire has substantiated this affirmation. 

Conclusion

The limited testing capacity, which is substantially reserved for major cities, indicate the possibility of an imperceptible increase in cases and primarily amongst the Rohingya. The containment measures have prompted the release of 800 Rohingya prisoners, meanwhile, Myanmar has reported the first case from the Rohingya community increasing the skepticism around their camps. The person was noted to have entered Rakhine illegally from Bangladesh. In addition to the International aid agencies and civil societies, the Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement has been tasked with setting up hygiene infrastructure and spreading awareness in these camps. However, the government intervention has not been adequate. While the Tamadaw stands preoccupied the armed conflicts, the Government braces itself with the upcoming elections in November. This pessimistic situation could cajole an unprecedented catastrophe amid a pandemic.

By Ryan Mitra and Pranjal Tomar

Ryan Mitra is pursuing his masters in International Affairs at the Graduate Institute Geneva. He has previously interned with the Ministry of External Affairs of India, and the Research Centers for Eastern and North Eastern Studies-Kolkata. His areas of interest are Maritime Affairs, Asian Geopolitics, Indian Foreign Policy, South and South East Asian Affairs, and Conflict Studies.  

Pranjal Tomar has recently completed his Bachelor of Arts and Law from the Guru Gobind Singh Indraprastha University, New Delhi. He has an avid interest in the fields of Public International Law, International Humanitarian Law, Indian Foreign Policy and Global Security. He has previously interned with the United Nations Environment Programme and several litigators at the Delhi High Court and Supreme Court of India. 

Image: “Rohingya refugees in the Nayapara camp” by Austcare – World Humanitarian Aid is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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