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Coronavirus

First Rohingya refugee dies from coronavirus in Bangladesh camps

Aid workers have warned of risk of humanitarian disaster from COVID-19

Rohingya refugees gather to mark the second anniversary of the exodus at the Kutupalong camp in Cox's Bazar, Bangladesh, in August 2019.   © Reuters

DHAKA (Reuters) -- An elderly Rohingya refugee has become the first person to die from coronavirus in the world's largest refugee settlement in Bangladesh, where there are fears the disease could spread fast due to overcrowding.

The 71-year-old man died on May 31 while undergoing treatment at an isolation centre at the camps where over a million Rohingya live, said Bimal Chakma, a senior official of the government's Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commission.

"Today we got the confirmation that he tested positive for COVID-19," he told Reuters by telephone.

Aid workers have long warned of a potential humanitarian disaster if there is a major outbreak at the camps in the Cox's Bazar coastal district. The Rohingya, members of a mostly Muslim minority, fled a brutal military crackdown in Myanmar.

At least 29 Rohingya have tested positive for the virus so far since the first case was detected on May 14.

Officials said 339 tests have been conducted among Rohingya in the camps so far.

"We are living in fear about what we are going to do if there is a big outbreak," Rohingya refugee Mohammed Rafiq said by phone.

Bangladesh has seen a spike in infections in recent weeks, with 52,445 confirmed cases and 709 deaths.

"We are all working round the clock to ensure that testing is available to refugees," said Louise Donovan, spokesperson for U.N. refugee agency UNHCR in Cox's Bazar.

"Those who are identified as COVID-19 positive have adequate facilities in place to care for them, and to ensure contact tracing and isolation of those who may have been exposed."

As many as 60,000 to 90,000 people are jammed into each square kilometre, with families of up to a dozen sharing small shelters.

"It is a ticking time bomb," said Alejandro Agustin Cuyar, Relief International charity's Cox's Bazar programme director.

Cuyar said the refugee camps were overcrowded, with shared water sources and communal toilets and washing facilities.

"Once the virus takes hold, it will be incredibly challenging to flatten the curve, so we are gravely concerned the numbers needing treatment will soon be overwhelming."

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