3 May 2020

Kiwi aid worker in Bangladesh says next few weeks critical

11:19 pm on 3 May 2020

A New Zealand aid worker based in the world's largest refugee camp is bracing for coronavirus to sweep through the settlement as the government is urged to step up its humanitarian response.

Carl Adams at Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar refugee camp.

Carl Adams at Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar refugee camp. Photo: Supplied

As country director for the international NGO Medair, Carl Adams is helping to prepare Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar camp for the inevitable arrival of Covid-19 cases.

He is based at the camp on the country's southeastern coast, which according to the United Nations is now home to 855,000 official Rohingya refugees all of whom are vulnerable.

"There's been a lot of modelling done about what happens when Covid-19 hits the camps and people aren't able to socially distance," Adams said of the cramped conditions and shared resources.

"The best case scenario looks really bad and the worst case scenario is just dire but really the next couple of weeks are going to be critical."

Adams said there have been coronavirus cases near the camp but not yet within, and preparation could make a lot of difference.

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The number of confirmed coronavirus cases in Bangladesh has risen steeply in the last few weeks to more than 8900 with more than 170 deaths.

Two children visiting Medair's health post in Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh. Photo taken during visit to Kutupalong with Florian Ecuyer to film episodes for "Medair Lives".

Two children visiting Medair's health post in Kutupalong camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Medair/Diana Gorter

The country is in lockdown, and there are strict hygiene protocols including temperature checks and full PPE for anyone entering refugee camps.

"There have been those efforts to try and slow the spread but I don't think it's going to be stopped from becoming widespread in the camps," he said.

"It just buys time to get facilities up and running as much as we can."

He said with borders effectively closed, poorer nations need help resourcing their fight against Covid-19.

Medair is a partner with Tearfund, which launched an appeal to provide emergency relief and support to the most vulnerable refugees, providing hygiene kits and emergency food in Lebanon and funding health clinics for Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar.

Tearfund chief executive and Council for International Development chair, Ian McInnes, said New Zealanders have shown their support, so far donating an estimated $2.5 million to 10 aid agencies' appeals to help the world's most vulnerable during the pandemic.

"That's very strong public support," he said.

"We think Kiwis get the fact that tough as it is here, somebody has it harder and they've responded to that, which makes it easier for the government to come in now and allocate taxpayer funding to the global humanitarian response."

Tearfund, along with Oxfam and World Vision, is among a coalition of 14 New Zealand aid agencies that have petitioned Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Foreign Minister Winston Peters to provide $25m urgent humanitarian funding.

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The Cox's Bazaar refuge camp in Bangladesh.

The Cox's Bazaar refuge camp in Bangladesh. Photo: Supplied

McInnes said New Zealand has earned the admiration of the world for eliminating community transmission of Covid-19.

"Really this is the moment to stand on that moral platform and say what we believe needs to be done," he said.

"I don't think any right minded person would say we should not throw resources at stopping Covid-19 in poorer countries."

The United Nations has asked New Zealand to contribute $25m to an immediate humanitarian relief fund, with a goal of gathering $3 billion from the world's wealthier nations.

The government had earmarked $50m towards responding to Covid-19 in the Pacific but McInnes said that was redirecting funding from existing aid programmes.

"The economic destruction at household level for poorer people is enormous, which is why we say don't divert existing aid but chip in."

After a global scramble to secure life-saving equipment including ventilators, Carl Adams said there will not be enough at Cox's Bazaar if an outbreak spreads through the camp.

There are isolation shelters set up in preparation.

"There is a real sense of fear. The Rohingya are people who have experienced a lot of trauma in their lives, being forced out of their homelands by brutal force and violence and this is yet another challenge they have to face," he said.

"There is a world beyond our doorstep and a lot of people are in a pretty bad situation facing this."

Carl Adams at Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar refugee camp

Carl Adams at Bangladesh's Cox's Bazaar refugee camp Photo: Supplied

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