Rashadul Hasan and Shakawat Hossain
Even though the fatal clutch of Covid-19 pandemic crushed out many structured systems, what this planet may have learned from it is the obvious need for togetherness rather than battling alone against the global disaster. At least the dwellers of one of the last coronavirus-free sanctuaries on earth, remote Marshall Island, realized this when two people were tested positive for novel coronavirus in October 2020.
The reason we come up with the importance of togetherness to take on any crucial time, is to appreciate the decision of the Government of Bangladesh to roll out vaccination programme in the Rohingya camps of Cox's Bazar, the largest refugee settlement in the world. Despite the government's many efforts to curb down the Covid-19 infection in the Forcibly Displaced Myanmar Nationals (FDMN) camps and the adjacent host settlements, the upward rate of Infection is risking both communities simultaneously.
As of 29th of July at least 15,946 people have been tested positive for Covid-19 in Cox's Bazar including 2,415 confirmed cases of Rohingya community, even though the majority of infected have fortunately recovered. As of 29th July 2021, at least 27 Rohingya refugees and 153 locals from host communities recorded deaths from Covid-19. Being the most popular tourist destination of the country and the hosting district of the largest refugee population, Cox's Bazar is the obvious hotspot for the spread ofthe disease.
The government's decision to bring the Rohingya population under the vaccination programme is undoubtedly a timely as well as crucial initiative for the protection of the local population of Ukhiya and Teknaf Upazilas in the Cox's Bazar district. Apart from this, the credit also goes to the World Health Organization (WHO) and other health partners providing technical and capacity-building support to the dedicated staff of various agencies within the government and humanitarian settings.
The inclusion of the Rohingya refugee population in the Bangladesh national vaccination plan has been one of the top priorities for the Health Sector (a group under Inter Sector Coordination Group-ISCG) in Cox's Bazar. According to WHO, in early February 2021, coinciding with the national campaign roll-out, the Government of Bangladesh signed a revised version of the National Deployment and Vaccination Plan (NDVP) which included the Rohingya refugee population as a target group, with a similar phased approach used for the host community.
The COVID-19 national vaccination campaign of the country started rolling out on 7th February 2021 following a set of criteria that prioritized the most vulnerable groups and frontline professionals battling against the virus. The consideration of Rohingya population under vaccination was canceled due to lack of vaccine doses for a certain period of time. However, the temporary termination of vaccination was lifted and authorities resumed the programme introducing some flexibility in terms of age bar and registration process for population of the country.
Initially, the vaccination programme has been planned to kick-off in all 34 Rohingya camps on 7th August 2021.The Government estimated to bring more than one lac Rohingya population under this vaccination programme. Registration process and minimum age to take the Covid-19 jabs have yet to be fixed and conversation on these issues continues among the partners and government, according to several sources dealing with the vaccination programme in Cox's Bazar.
However, the concerning issue which may appear as a key hurdle of the vaccination programme- is the reluctance of Rohingyas to take the jabs.In reference to the qualitative data of Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ), Brac University, a significant portion of Rohingya population believe in rumors, prejudices, and misconceptions on the existence of Covid-19. These factors lead them to adopt a number of misleading information on the formula of Covid-19 vaccines and its efficacy.
Simultaneously, a portion of the population representing the most vulnerable groups, believe that mid and high-level temperature destroys Covid-19, while another group considers it as a disaster from Allah to encounter 'atheists' and 'non-Islamists'. CPJ carried out community outreach workshops on raising awareness on Covid-19 in 10 Rohingya camps and adjacent host communities in the last six months and collected these qualitative data.
The level of knowledge about coronavirus and its vaccine was overwhelmingly low when this outreach and awareness programme was undertaken. Limited access to the existing communication channels and tools by both communities is identified to be one of the main reasons for such negative narratives on covid and its prevention. However, changing attitudes and mindsets of participants after taking part in the workshops seemed to be very satisfactory which indicates the quick learning and adaptation approaches of this fragile community.
According to a joint data of 2018 led by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Government of Bangladesh, a total of 8,84,041 people were registered as refugees.Out of this population, only 35,361 individuals (4%) were identified as the old age group (60+). The majority, 45% of the population represents age group 18-59 years. However, the exact figure of the population above the age of 55 years was not identified. In that sense, if the age bar is enforced while bringing refugees under vaccination could make another hurdle to finish it successfully. Meanwhile, a flexible registration process should be introduced for the legged behind population.
Reinforcing the previous information, the reluctance on taking vaccine was mostly found amongst people representing the elderly age groups who believe in rumors and misleading information on Covid-19. Some of them probably would not change their stance to come under this vaccination campaign unless an effective communication strategy is developed.
Even though a significant number of humanitarian agencies are dedicatedly providing services to change the behaviors of the refugee population, the expected result is yet to come. Restrictions from camp authorities to carry out advocacy and awareness-raising related activities during countrywide lockdown, squeezed the way of disseminating proper information to the refugees. In most of the camps, information on Covid-19 is being disseminated through community radio, miking, billboard and social networking sites.
These key tools are definitely recognized and effective for communicating with the community. However, some questions may arise on how effective these communication tools are to change the mindset of the Rohingya refugees, since these are merely accessible to them. Access to necessary information is more difficult for those people who belong the most vulnerable groups (elderly, single women, pregnant and lactating mothers and persons with disabilities).
Reintegration of the communication strategy could be much needed to uproot the existing reluctance, rumors, and misconception of the refugees around Covid-19 and its vaccine. Health partners should lay out a comprehensive campaign mechanism with other partners working with Communication with Community (CwC). Religious and community leaders and considerable stakeholders should be included in the planning stage pf the campaign to reach out to the Rohingya people effectively.
At the same time, all partners should pay an extra attention in maintaining safety protocols strictly while campaigning in the Rohingya camps. Any campaign using the magic bullet theory of communication is simply non-functional in any fragile community. Two-step flow of information has been found to be far more effective to change the reluctance and mindset of the Rohingya population.
To make the long-awaited vaccination program successful, all stakeholders of this intervention should re imagine the existing communication strategy, before the campaign kicks off. Authorities should consider awareness raising activities on Covid-19 as emergency service to curb down Covid-19 and make vaccination successful.
Rashadul Hasan is the Project Manager and Shakawat Hossain is the Filed Coordinator at the Centre for Peace and Justice (CPJ), Brac University. Views expressed here are solely of the authors and does not necessarily represent any official position of Brac University or the Asian Age.