Courageous health workers on the frontline in a time of deadly COVID-19

Health workers continue to deliver essentials services in the Rohingya refugee camps as prevention measures are scaled up against Coronavirus

Nazzina Mohsin and Karen Reidy
মেডিকেল সহকারী আরিফা আফসানা ও রোহিঙ্গা শরণার্থী শিশু রুমানা
UNICEF Bangladesh/2020/Sujan
23 April 2020

As the heroic efforts of health care workers tackling COVID-19 are commended around the world, there is a newfound appreciation for the frontline health staff who are working to keep us safe.

COVID-19 is taking an unprecedented toll around the world with countries taking drastic actions to contain the virus and save as many lives as possible.

Although services in the Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, have been scaled back to reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission, 14 UNICEF supported health facilities continue to provide essential primary health care for 185,000 Rohingya children and families.

To date, there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the Rohingya refugee camps. However, Rohingya refugees and humanitarian workers are watching global news reports with trepidation and fear as a disease outbreak could prove deadly in the crowded camps.

Over 854,000 Rohingya people live in one of the largest and most densely populated refugee camps in the world - over half of whom are children.

“We are quite worried about a potential COVID-19 outbreak in the camps. It is incredibly densely populated and so cases may surge rapidly if someone is infected. If we find a suspected case, we will immediately refer them to isolation and treatment facilities designated for COVID-19 cases,” says Dr. Tazreen Islam Tasif who works at a UNICEF-supported health clinic, managed by Partners in Health Development (PHD).

স্থাপিত হাত ধোয়ার কেন্দ্র
PHD Bangladesh/2020/Haque
Health care workers use the newly installed handwashing station before entering the UNICEF supported PHD health clinic in the Rohingya refugee camps.

Health facilities take prevention measures

Preventative measures against COVID-19 transmission are in place at UNICEF-supported health facilities. Handwashing points and chlorine solutions are in place at each entrance so that every individual can wash and sanitize their hands before entering the facility. The health workers are cautious, at the same time they are ready to care for any patients as they know how to protect themselves with special equipment.

“We have Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) gear, and we have recently conducted refresher training on Infection Prevention and Control for medical staff. When someone arrives at the clinic, we ensure that they wash their hands, then we measure their temperature. We do triage and check their health by ensuring a safe distance between the patient and the healthcare worker, and when it is required, we follow guidelines to wear PPE to protect ourselves and also other patients who visit us.” says Dr. Tasif.

Dr. Ashraf Hossain Sohag is also a medical officer working at the UNICEF-PHD health clinic in the Rohingya camps. He spoke about his commitment to work while protecting the Rohingya community.

“Each time we travel to the camp to work, it is a huge risk. We have a rostered rotation of doctors and staff in our clinic to limit potential exposure to the virus and subsequent transmission. Limiting our footprint in the camp will reduce the risk of an outbreak. At the same, we must serve our patients and so we must be present in the clinic to fulfil our duties as doctors,” says Dr. Sohag.

“We have reorganized the seating arrangement for patients in the waiting area with respect to social distancing. The gap between seats is now at least 3 feet to reduce risk of infection spreading,” he adds.

“Patient flow to our clinic has decreased since the COVID-19 awareness raising programme started. Patients and their family members are advised to not to go outside their shelters unless it is necessary or urgent. We are mostly receiving seasonal flu and diarrhoea cases and providing treatment. However, due to the emergence of COVID-19, a common cold is drawing fear among the refugee population,” adds Dr. Tasif.

রোহিঙ্গা শরণার্থী
PHD Bangladesh/2020/Sohag
To ensure physical distance among visitors, a three feet gap between seats is placed in the waiting area of a UNICEF-supported health centre run by PHD in the Rohingya refugee camps.

Awareness-raising on COVID-19

One of UNICEF’s top priorities is to raise awareness among children and families on how to protect themselves from COVID-19, to understand risks, symptoms and transmission. They must also know what to do if they feel sick.

During the month of March, UNICEF and its implementing partners reached over 294,000 people in nine camps through 215 community health volunteers with handwashing and COVID-19 related messaging, providing health and hygiene messages.

“Awareness programmes are ongoing in the camps which are conducted by the government authorities, with support from UN agencies like UNICEF. They are promoting best practices of handwashing and hygiene management along with sneezing and coughing etiquette,” says Dr. Sohag.

“It is essential to involve religious and community leaders in these campaigns to understand and address any misperceptions about COVID-19.”

UNICEF is partnering with the Islamic Foundation of Bangladesh to raise awareness on COVID-19 through over 1,100 Islamic centres in Cox’s Bazar District and works closely with a number of religious leaders in the Rohingya camps to ensure children and families have accurate and reliable information from trusted sources of information in their communities.

Expansion of isolation and treatment facilities

COVID-19 has overwhelmed countries with some of the best healthcare systems in the world. Despite intensive preparation efforts, if a major outbreak of the disease occurs in Cox’s Bazar, this would have a very severe impact on Rohingya and Bangladeshi communities and stretch health services beyond their capacity.

UNICEF is rapidly establishing a temporary 200-bed COVID-19 isolation and treatment unit in Teknaf, and together with other key partners establishing a 50-bed COVID-19 isolation and treatment unit at Ramu Upazila Health Complex to serve Rohingya and Bangladeshi communities respectively. This is part of the Government of Bangladesh and the Health Sector’s plans to provide 1,700 beds in Cox’s Bazar District for COVID-19 patients.

Although the challenges remain immense, UNICEF, together with World Health Organization and health partners, are working around the clock to ensure health facilities and health workers are equipped to the extent possible to face this global pandemic and protect vulnerable children and their families in Cox’s Bazar, one patient at a time.


UNICEF wishes to express its sincere gratitude to the Governments of Australia, Canada, Japan, the United States and the United Kingdom as well as the Asian Development Bank, European Union and Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency for their immediate and generous contributions to this critical response.