Foreign Policy
• Published
August 13, 2021

The Rohingya Crisis & COVID-19

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The leading concern among politicians and economists regarding the Rohingya crisis has become the viability to sustain the population. The Rohingya crisis originates from Myanmar’s crackdown on the small Muslim minorty located on its southwestern border. Since then, over 700,000 Rohingya have fled to the nearby country of Bangladesh, settling in the Chittagong division in refugee camps. The world initially reacted to this, as they would with the majority of humanitarian crises, with fear, worry, and sympathy for the millions impacted. But as global trends started shifting to areas beyond this central issue, the Rohingya crisis continued to be ignored. The crisis continued to worsen for the Rohingya with the breakout of COVID-19, with the first case from the camps recorded on May 14, 2020. Since then, the swift breakout of COVID-19 in neighboring countries, including India, Bangladesh, Nepal, and Malaysia, meant that cases rose by hundreds in a few months. This incline is a tragedy; a tragedy that surmounted through years of inefficient humanitarian management and lack of awareness. This article aims at understanding the issue of the Rohingya, the implications of COVID-19, and what the future holds for them.

But first, a couple key events need to be laid out here. Especially from the bottom-up. The origins of the Rohingya derive from early 15th century Arab missionaries, who settled and interacted with the Arakan population in the present-day Rakhine state. The interactions grew and eventually, the Muslim population stayed within the region, causing a shift from the Buddhist demographic to an Islamic doctrine. In the late 18th century, the Burmese captured the region, and by the time the British had conquered and left, substantial Bengal populations settled for jobs. However, because of Burma, now Myanmar, recognition as a Buddhist state, the country left out acknowledging the Rohingya. The tension between the two discrepancies led to Operation Dragon King in 1977-1978, causing more than 200,000 refugees to flee to Bangladesh. The operation ultimately left 10,000 Rohingya dead and deemed ”illegal” under the Burmese government. By 1989, Burma renamed itself to Myanmar, but the State Law and Order Restoration Council would begin to increase surveillance and militarization in the state, leading to mass persecution, causing 250,000 to flee to Bangladesh. Horrifyingly, in 1992, Myanmar and Bangladesh began repatriations, forcing thousands of persecuted Rohingya to flee back to their unstable homeland. Although proponents such as the U.N. and the Médecins Sans Frontières supplied aid in the 1990s and 2000s, the overwhelming amount of unsanitary conditions, low shelter quality, and the fall of camps because of natural disasters halted progress . By 2006, nearly 79% of the Rohingya shelters were flooded. The ongoing crises led to an armed conflict between the remaining Rohingya in the Arakan state against the Chin State from Myanmar. 

The crisis, to put it short, is the culmination of generations of internalized racism, dehumanization, and disembodiment of the Rohingya people. It was not just political cleansing. It was not just their homes being ravaged and torn apart. It was the fact that their own ontology was disregarded. Shattered. And thrown in the depths of Myanmar’s hierarchy. Their own people. Talk about tribalism. *Sigh*.

And thus, a frightening tale unfolded. The genocide and systematic Rohingya cleansing. 

Yet, this was only the tip of the iceberg, The flame of the candlewax of the entire story.

In late 2019, the world was met with a peril it never comprehended: COVID-19. The high transmission rate and the lack of understanding for its origins led to the virus to rapidly escalate in nearby states. In particular, already economically burdened states such as those in Southeast Asia and South Asia were affected substantially. Billions of dollars were lost, millions of people were infected, and thousands had to flee. Specifically, more than 625,000 refugees reside in the Kutpalong camp, one of the densest sites in the world. This catalyzes with conundrum as Bangladesh already boasts a healthcare shortage, especially in light of the pandemic, forcing many to reside in their homes. Indeed, among the 4.5 per 1,000 workers needed to sustain a country according to the WHO, only 0.31 physicians per 1,000 are available in Bangladesh, which exponentially increases the rate of transmission. As numerous governments including Bangladesh face hurdles to contain COVID-19, the Rohingya are locked in a double conflict, whereby their population faces both persecution and disease. According to some, nearly one in four Rohingya residing in such refugee camps are already displaying COVID-19 symptoms, and infection rates could be in more than 50% of the population at the current rate. 

But there is another factor in the midst of the story: water. A resource so overlooked by modern Westerners that it has become a dispenible resource. The same cannot be said about the Rohingya. The nearby water sources stem from two components: (1) the coastal portions, only having damp saltwater and (2) the nearby rivers. Unfortunately, the waters contain an unprecedented amount of dirt, parasites, and pollution, which for any outside the region, would be a lethal drink in of itself. Yet this concoction is what the Rohingya live upon. The high amount of bacteria and pollutants mean that even without the COVID-19 pandemic, the transmission of other diseases still remains alarmingly high. 

As the future unravels, the outcome is not looking too bright. There is still hope to help of course. But it's only slim. The persistence of the issue and decades of neglect means that the populace has unstable food, water, and shelters. At the current rate, agencies such as the U.N. and numerous other NGOs would have to substitute in for the missing governmental engagement from South and Southeast Asian nations — regions in which the Rohingya flock to. Rising sea levels also mean that the Rohingya, who reside in coastal areas and marshes, are going to be more prone than ever in the succeeding decades. Proper disease control, widespread vaccination, travel routes, and open immigration would have to be adopted by several neighboring countries. Although the transformation would take years of diplomacy, numerous groups have urged on for their assistance. When public and national support pents up for the Rohingya, that would be one of the first pillars into crafting peace for them.

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