It’s World Refugee Day on June 20, a time to commemorate the most vulnerable populations around the world. CNN Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Sanjay Gupta turns to Bex Wright, who covers the Rohingya refugee crisis for CNN, and David Miliband, the CEO of the International Rescue Committee, to talk about how we can never be free of a global pandemic unless everywhere in the world is safe.
You can listen on your favorite podcast app or read the transcript below.
Dr. Sanjay Gupta: I want you to imagine for a moment, life in a refugee camp, you and your family packed in a dense, overcrowded space. You share a bathroom with everyone in the community. You try to wash your hands, but there’s barely any soap and water. Now, think about all that in the middle of a pandemic.
Given all that’s going on in the country right now, it’s sometimes hard to think about the plight of others far away. But when we say we’re all in this together, that means everyone. One of the most vulnerable populations on the front lines of coronavirus are the world’s refugees.
My mom lived the first 12 years of her life as a refugee. And I often think about what her life would have been had it also been in the middle of a pandemic.
In this episode, my colleague Bex Wright, who’s based in Hong Kong and covers the Rohingya, shares the story of one of the most at-risk communities in the world.
I’m Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent. And this is “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction.”
Bex Wright, field producer, CNN International: Thank you, Sanjay. Now the Rohingya are an ethnic Muslim minority in the northwest of Myanmar, which is a majority Buddhist country and formerly known as Burma.
I first started covering them in 2016 as they began to flee Myanmar. A lot of them have actually been violently driven out, as the government doesn’t recognize them as legitimate citizens.
The UN describes them as the most persecuted minority on earth.
Nikki Haley, former US ambassador to the United Nations: Once more, we are hearing about torture, mutilation, repeated massacres, gang rapes and obliteration of entire villages.
Wright: Earlier this year, the International Court of Justice ordered Myanmar to prevent acts of genocide against the Rohingya and to stop destroying evidence. Myanmar, for its part, has always denied genocide.
Rohingya refugee: My sons and daughters were shot on Thursday. I can’t find them. There’s no one left.
Wright: Many escaped across the border to neighboring Bangladesh, which has allowed the Rohingya in for humanitarian reasons.
Now almost 1 million Rohingya refugees live in a camp outside a town called Cox’s Bazar. It is considered the largest refugee camp in the world — and this is where our story is centered on today.
The virus hit the camp in late March — and as of now, they officially have a little over 30 cases and three deaths. I know that must not sound like a lot to countries that have seen thousands — even tens of thousands — of deaths. But we have to realize the unique situation that this camp and a lot of other refugee camps are facing.
Mohammad Arafat, Rohingya activist and filmmaker: So now it’s too crowded so people can’t maintain the social distancing.
Wright: I spoke to Mohammad Arafat, a young Rohingya filmmaker and activist, who lives inside the camp.
As Mohammad says, social distancing is nearly impossible.
I’ve been to the camp myself, back in 2017. It is overcrowded and packed with makeshift homes, with a population density that is four times that of New York City.
Families also share toilets and handwashing facilities.
We are told to wash our hands multiple times a day — that’s not really possible for the refugees.
Arafat: So now we can’t go anywhere. We are staying inside the home. We can call each other, otherwise most of the time we can’t communicate.
Wright: On top of all this, there’s an internet ban in the camp. The Bangladeshi government did this last year because they said that extremists were using the internet to organize.
Without internet, it’s extremely hard to get any information — what the virus is, its symptoms, how you can prevent it. Aid groups like the UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees], the UN refugee agency, are sending people text messages, while the Red Cross has told me that they have volunteers going door to door.
In order to try to get ahead of the virus, the camp has been put under lockdown since March, and aid groups on the ground have been preparing for the pandemic to hit.
David Miliband, CEO of the International Rescue Committee: The great fear is that this ravages the local population, that it runs riot.
Wright: I spoke to David Miliband, the CEO of the International Rescue Committee, a global humanitarian charity that works with communities affected by conflict and disaster.
Miliband: There’s very little testing going on. There’s been 400 tests only, for the million people there. Whereas, remember, countries like the US or Germany are testing 40,000 people per million of population.
And our focus as a humanitarian aid agency is obviously on treating people who have got the disease but is also building isolation centers so they don’t affect the rest of the population. We built two 50 to 60 bed isolation centers. But also critically, the work on prevention, the handwashing, the information campaigns, the fever testing to try to separate the population out.
Wright: And in terms of if someone does get sick with the virus, tell us what happens to them. Do they get treated inside the camp or are they taken elsewhere?
Miliband: Yes, there is basic primary care that we provide and other nongovernmental organizations, other NGOs, provide. Obviously, for the most severe cases they get referred. But I don’t want to give the impression that services are anything like what you might expect in a much richer, advanced industrialized country. And so it’s desperately important that people get treated before it gets too serious. I mean, once you need a ventilator, it’s too late, really.
And the great fear is that despite the large amount of asymptomatic cases, for a population that has had such a traumatic few years, that for too many, it will be too difficult to save them.
Wright: In terms of the, the cases, you know, obviously it’s quite low at the moment. But as you’ve said, the testing is not really there. How bad could it get there? What are your concerns in terms of that?
Miliband: It’s worth saying that the disease, which has followed a very clear curve in Europe and North America and Latin America, the great fear and the great likelihood, I’m afraid, is it follows the same trajectory in South Asia, in Bangladesh, in Afghanistan and Pakistan, where we work and also across swaths of Africa.
And since this is a disease of the connected world, it needs a far more effective standing up of global health support than governments have so far managed. They’ve been preoccupied, understandably, with taking care of their own citizens. No one says the government isn’t firstly responsible for their own citizens. But it’s myopic not to treat the global nature of this as of absolutely integral importance.
Wright: And in terms of refugees in particular, you know that this coronavirus is affecting towns and cities around the world, you know, as you’ve mentioned people are very focused on what’s happening close to home.
So why should people care about refugees in particular?
Miliband: Well, I think that we should care about the world’s most vulnerable for two reasons. There’s a moral reason, which I don’t think we should run away from. Human beings who can’t care for themselves deserve support.
But I think there’s also a strategic reason. When you’ve got a disease of the connected world, then you’re only as strong as the weakest link in the chain. And there won’t be a return to economic normality of a global kind until the disease is tackled everywhere.
And so there are large countries like Nigeria, which is hosting refugees from Cameroon. There are countries across the Middle East, obviously, that have got refugees from Syria. So in every continent there, you’ve got refugees from Venezuela and Colombia.
And the argument has to be that there’s only two or three degrees of separation before the business person from New York wants to be on a flight back to Dubai. And in Dubai, they’re meeting with people from Lebanon or Jordan who’ve been in touch with people in Syria and in Syria, we’ve got no testing going on. So you can see the, that is not many degrees of separation before you understand that unless this disease is tackled everywhere, then there’s going to be danger everywhere.
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Wright: In terms of what we can do to help refugees. What can individuals do?
Miliband: Well, I’d love individuals to visit our website, www.rescue.org. I would love them to understand some of the stories of the people who we are helping because they are the daily reminder that it’s people like you or me.
I mean, refugees in Syria are people who were accountants, they were fitness trainers, they were journalists, they were bakers, they were farmers. And so I’d love them to do that. If they’re running a business, I’d love to give, I’d love them to give the refugees in their country a chance to work because people who have known the price of oppression also know the value of freedom. And obviously, if people are able, I want them to support charities like the International Rescue Committee.
And so those are people who need support and they need support for moral reasons. But also, if you want to see the world get back to normal, then we need to take on these global health challenges together.
Gupta: I know I say that we’re all in this together a lot, but I genuinely believe that. And there’s nothing that illustrates this better than what Bex just talked about. There are people listening to this podcast that could be half a world away from a refugee camp in Bangladesh, but this virus has proven that we’re all interconnected.
We can’t all truly be free of a global pandemic unless the entire world is safe as well.
We’ll be back tomorrow. Thanks for listening.
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