In the World's Largest Refugee Camp, a Female Cleric Tackles Coronavirus Myths

This story was originally published August 25, 2020 by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.


DHAKA, Aug 25 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) – Walking door to door through the world's largest refugee settlement in Bangladesh, Ashmida Begum is on the front lines of efforts to dispel entrenched and lethal myths about the coronavirus.    

One is that COVID-19 can't harm Muslims since it originated in China.

Another myth is that drinking tea or reciting the call to prayer at home can repel the disease.

"There are many rumors in the camp. Using the Quran, I explain diseases have been present since the time of our prophet ... and that we all need to stay clean and help each other to win against it," Begum said.

A woman in a burka sits down on the floor as she speaks to several other woman who are dressed and seated in the same way.
Ashmida Begum speaks to Rohingya refugees in the world's largest largest refugee settlement about the coronavirus on June 20, 2020. | BRAC/Thomson Reuters Foundation

Begum, a cleric in her 30s from Myanmar, spends her days battling rumors about the disease that could help it flourish in the crowded camps of Cox's Bazar where social distancing is impossible.

Sitting with refugees in their homes, Begum educates women and children — who account for a majority of the camp's population — about the virus.

The United Nations has warned that the 900,000 Rohingya refugees who mostly live in tents in the camps with limited access to sanitary facilities are among the world's most vulnerable to the virus.

Bangladesh authorities say the virus has so far been well contained with just six deaths and about 60 infections in the camps.

Women like Begum, trusted in the community, are able to effectively reach women in the camps, many of whom rarely leave their homes and lack access to the internet, said Hasina Akhter of the Bangladeshi NGO BRAC.

Bangladesh on Monday said it would lift internet restrictions imposed on nearly a million Rohingya refugees ahead of the third anniversary of their exodus from Myanmar.

The government has been under pressure from the United Nations to end the restrictions over fears they are hampering efforts to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

Bangladesh's foreign secretary said the government had banned high-speed internet in the camps last year because it could be used to spread "baseless rumors" that could "create panic and destabilize the camps."

A woman in hijab, a black hat and and loose clothes stands in front of the camera.
Ashmida Begum speaks to Rohingya refugees in the world's largest largest refugee settlement about the coronavirus on June 20, 2020. | BRAC/ Thomson Reuters Foundation

Begum left her village in Myanmar three years ago to escape persecution and walked for a week with her family of six to arrive in Bangladesh with little hope and an uncertain future.

Since then she has worked with NGOs to help tackle measles and rubella and support pregnant women in the camps.

"Recently I dealt with a family that didn't send its pregnant daughter-in-law, who was in pain, to the hospital because they thought it was un-Islamic. I said this was wrong and that there would be female doctors to treat her," she said. 

Convincing refugees about the dangers of the virus was difficult until the first cases of COVID-19 were confirmed in May.

"I started receiving a lot more questions once the first cases of virus were found in the camps," said Begum.

August marks the third anniversary of the Rohingya exodus when more than 730,000 Rohingya from Myanmar escaped a military crackdown. Myanmar is facing charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice in the Hague over the violence.

The army denies genocide, saying it was fighting a legitimate battle against Rohingya militants who attacked first.

Last week, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) called for renewed support and solutions for the Rohingya.

But Begum doesn't think that's going to happen any time soon.

"There can be nothing happier than going back home. But we still can't trust them (Myanmar). I am worried to even think about my children’s future," said Begum.

Reporting by Naimul Karim @Naimonthefield; Editing by Tom Finn.

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