Myanmar's camps housing hundreds of thousands of civilians internally displaced by armed conflict in the country's ethnic regions are looming hot spots for the spread of the coronavirus, an international rights organization said Monday.
New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the government to take immediate measures to reduce the risk of an outbreak of the contagious pathogen, officially called COVID-19, among the estimated 350,000 displaced civilians in Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Chin, and Kayin states.
Overcrowding, restrictions on humanitarian aid, limits on the movements of displaced persons and a government-mandated internet service shutdown specifically in Rakhine state means that people in these regions are particularly vulnerable to a virus outbreak, HRW's statement said.
"Years of conflict, neglect, and abusive policies by Myanmar's government and military have left hundreds of thousands of displaced people sitting in the path of a public health catastrophe," said Brad Adams, HRW's Asia director.
"The authorities need to ensure these groups have access to information, humanitarian aid, and health services, including prompt testing and isolation for those who show symptoms."
Internally displaced persons (IDPs) face shortages of clean water, food, basic necessities as well as substandard health care putting them at high risk for chronic diseases - conditions that make them more susceptible to the coronavirus.
Myanmar has reported 14 confirmed cases of the virus, with four new cases on Monday - three French tourists and a local man returning from Thailand, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports and local media reports.
Myanmar's Ministry of Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement held a coordination meeting on March 24 in Naypyidaw to draw up a plan for preventing, controlling and treating coronavirus infections in 128 IDP camps in Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, and Kayin states, government-run Myanmar News Agency reported.
The report said the camps in 24 townships in the four states hold more than 184,300 people.
"Regarding the project, it is important to disseminate knowledge on the prevention and control of the coronavirus infection not only for those living at the IDP camps, but also for those taking administrative duty at the camps," Win Myat Aye, the country's social welfare minister, was quoted as saying.
The meeting participants also discussed managing the receipt and distribution of sanitary items, medicines, and medical equipment at the IDP camps, the report said.
Actual IDP numbers
The actual number of IDPs and camps, some of which are unofficial, is much higher, according to humanitarian aid groups and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs, which puts the number of displaced civilians in northern Shan and Kachin states alone at about 106,800 in 171 camps.
About 140,000 displaced villagers have sought shelter in more than 100 camps in Rakhine as well as in Buddhist monasteries and win the homes of friends and relatives after fleeing clashes between the Myanmar military and the rebel Arakan Army during the last five months, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local relief group.
HRW said that humanitarian workers told the group that the government failed to consult them on its draft plan or provide guidance on how to respond to a potential spread.
"Health conditions are already disastrous for displaced people in Rakhine, Kachin, and northern Shan camps, and now COVID-19 is threatening to decimate these vulnerable communities," Adams said.
"Donors are ready to help, but nothing can happen unless the Myanmar government ends restrictions on movement and permits aid groups the kind of unfettered access needed for a rapid, substantive response to the virus," he said.
The Myanmar government confirmed the first two cases of conronavirus infections on March 23, though HRW said the actual number of cases is likely much higher, in part due to limited testing capacity and the country's weak health system.
A day later, the government issued an order requiring all Myanmar nationals and foreigners traveling to the country to spend 14 days in a quarantine facility upon arrival.
It also requires foreign nationals, including diplomats and U.N. personnel working in Myanmar, to present laboratory evidence of the absence of COVID-19 infections. Both diplomats and U.N. employees are subject to two weeks of home quarantine.
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