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Myanmar's displaced people vulnerable to Covid-19

Overcrowding and poor sanitation at camps leave thousands of people at the mercy of the virus

Myanmar's displaced people vulnerable to Covid-19

Workers disinfect a road near Sule Pagoda in Yangon as a preventive measure against the coronavirus on March 29. Myanmar has 10 confirmed Covid-19 cases. (Photo: Sai Aung Main/AFP)

The Myanmar government should take urgent steps to tackle Covid-19 transmission among thousands of people displaced by conflict and violence across the country, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW).

The New York-based rights group warned that “overcrowding, a mobile internet shutdown, blocks on humanitarian aid and movement restrictions have left displaced communities in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Chin and Karen states especially vulnerable to a virus outbreak.”

HRW said in its report that most are trapped in dangerously overcrowded camps with severely substandard healthcare and inadequate access to clean water, sanitation and other essential services. Many displaced people have underlying medical conditions and chronic diseases, putting them at high risk of suffering serious effects from the virus.

Brad Adams, Asia director at HRW, said years of conflict, neglect and abusive policies by Myanmar’s government and military have left hundreds of thousands of displaced people sitting in the path of a public health catastrophe.

“The authorities need to ensure these groups have access to information, humanitarian aid and health services, including prompt testing and isolation for those who show symptoms,” Adams said in a statement on March 30.

HRW has called on the government to ensure its response to Covid-19 covers targeted prevention and treatment efforts for displaced populations, including allocating additional space and resources to alleviate overcrowding and improve water, sanitation and health services in line with international guidelines on responding to the coronavirus in camp settings.

“Health conditions are already disastrous for displaced people in Rakhine, Kachin and northern Shan camps, and now Covid-19 is threatening to decimate these vulnerable communities,” Adams said.

The rights group's call came after Myanmar officially confirmed its first cases of the coronavirus last week after weeks of downplaying the risk to the country.

There are 10 confirmed cases while 430 are being monitored at hospitals across the country and 55 patients are awaiting laboratory test results, according to the health ministry on March 29.

Critics say the country has relatively few testing kits, limited laboratory capacity and a dearth of skilled health workers.

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Myanmar has 6.1 doctors per 10,000 people, falling short of the World Health Organization's recommended minimum. In rural and conflict-affected areas, the availability of health personnel drops precipitously; one Rakhine township has only one doctor per 83,000 people, or 0.12 per 10,000 according to HRW.

Since 2012, about 130,000 Rohingya Muslims have been confined to open-air detention camps in central Rakhine, where they are denied freedom of movement and access to education, healthcare and employment.

HRW said only 16 percent of Rohingya in the camps reported receiving necessary medical care and Rohingya elsewhere in Rakhine face similar restrictions on accessing health services.

It calls on the government to lift restrictions that prevent minorities from accessing equitable healthcare, including eliminating the medical referral system, removing financial requirements for accessing Sittwe General Hospital and increasing 24/7 ambulance services.

Communicable diseases such as Covid-19 can spread easily amid the congested and deteriorating camp shelters where one latrine is shared by as many as 40 people and one water access point by as many as 600.

“Overcrowding in the camps is pervasive, making physical distancing nearly impossible and significantly increasing the risk of transmission,” the rights group said.

Across Myanmar, more than 312,000 displaced people are in Rakhine, Kachin and Shan states and the southeast region, according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

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