The Novel Coronavirus 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has had a devastating impact and is expected to have lasting consequences globally. As of 4 May 2020, 10,143 cases have been confirmed in Bangladesh. To date, only 21 cases have been identified in Cox’s Bazar district, which is home to over 850,000 Rohingya refugees and extremely vulnerable host communities. Although no positive COVID-19 cases have been reported in the camps, this is likely to change soon. The conditions in the camps, including overcrowding, limited sanitation facilities and an overburdened health system, have made the COVID-19 preparedness and response plan uniquely complex. An inability to fully meet basic needs, low levels of nutrition and limited access to health care may have had a damaging impact on the immunity levels of Rohingya refugees, making them more vulnerable to the virus.
A COVID-19 outbreak in the refugee camps and neighbouring communities would disproportionately affect women and girls and other vulnerable populations. Gender norms and roles in both refugee and host communities are likely to limit the ability of women and girls to protect themselves from the virus, and, if not adequately taken into account, they will have a significant impact on prevention and response efforts. Special attention to reduce risks must be accorded to older women, women with existing medical conditions and to pregnant women with a lower immunity status.
The normative framework that governs the lives of Rohingya refugees unequally affects women and girls by limiting their mobility, their ability to make decisions about their lives and access lifesaving services, and deprioritizes their needs and demands compared to those of men.
Restrictive sociocultural gender norms, gender-based violence, lack of gender-responsive facilities and services and security threats have hindered the ability of women and girls to meet their basic needs.
The COVID-19 crisis and lockdown measures will exacerbate these pre-existing social and gender norms with negative consequences for women and girls, as men may use the new restrictions and lockdown measures to exert their power and further control women and girls’ mobility and access to services.
The unpaid care work of women and girls has increased due to COVID-19 and related preventative measures, including caring for children, collecting water and maintaining household hygiene.
As primary caregivers in households and as frontline workers, women are at high risk of exposure to the virus.
Women are excluded from decision-making systems in the community, and their lack of access to reliable information, consultations and feedback mechanisms limits their ability to influence both prevention and response plans.
The inclusion of women leaders, networks and volunteers in the planning, implementation and monitoring of response plans will have a strong impact on making these right-based strategies, inclusive and effective.
Religious beliefs and practices play an important role in the life of Rohingya refugees, therefore, if these are not properly taken into account in response plans, failure to include them may have strong implications for both men and women.
Confinement, a rise in tensions and restrictions on services and access for humanitarian workers will increase levels of gender-based violence (GBV), child abuse and neglect and sexual exploitation and abuse.