"As we live in a very congested area, if there is limited access to medical treatment and the virus comes here, we all will die. So, we need sufficient hygiene materials like soap and masks, along with doctors and nurses" - Mobina

21 April 2020 — Mobina Khatun, 45, a Rohingya woman volunteer in a refugee camp in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, conducts door-to-door visits with women sheltering there, providing crucial information to prevent transmission of the coronavirus, while observing physical distancing.

“We are afraid because we have nothing,” explains Mobina. “As we live in a very congested area, if there is limited access to medical treatment and the virus comes here, we all will die. So, we need sufficient hygiene materials like soap and masks, along with doctors and nurses.”

Nurussafa, a 25-year-old Rohingya woman volunteer, said the pandemic has made life in the camps harder. “Food prices have increased and there are shortages of stock due to the restrictions put on transport and movement.”  

After being recruited as a volunteer, she was trained on COVID-19 prevention, including handwashing, respiratory hygiene and social distancing, as well as when to seek medical help and the importance of staying calm.

Through her door-to-door visits, she tells women how to protect themselves and what to do in case of infection.

Although the spread of the coronavirus has been relatively slow in South and Southeast Asia, the United Nations and its partners are working to save the densely populated and disaster-prone region from the impact of COVID-19, which would bring further human suffering to vulnerable people like the Rohingya refugees that Mobina and Nurussafa care for.  See a story from the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women).

lab workers at table

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), as of 21 April, India, which has a population of 1.3 billion, reported 18,601 confirmed cases and 590 deaths, while Indonesia, with a population of 270 million, reported 7,135 cases and 616 deaths.  Bangladesh, which has a population of 163 million, reported 3,382 cases and 110 deaths.

“The spread of COVID-19 in our Region has been comparatively slow, with almost all countries adopting early and aggressive physical distancing measures,” said Poonam Khetrapal Singh, Regional Director, WHO Southeast Asia, in her remarks to the recent videoconference with India’s Minister of Health and the UN health agency’s field staff. 

“In the coming weeks and months, each State will experience varying levels of transmission, and will need to calibrate its response accordingly,” she said, stressing the importance of rapidly sharing information among States.

Scaling up surveillance

Ms. Singh called on staff in the field to “gear up once more and take on this new challenge,” adding that the fight against the COVID-19 has entered a stage where surveillance will play a vital role in making future strategies for containment.

Moving forward, all countries must strengthen surveillance for COVID-19, she emphasized.

She said that India, as a large and diverse country, faces unique challenges but as history demonstrates, when India sets itself a goal, it can overcome all obstacles. “There can be no better example than when in 2014 India achieved polio elimination.”

Tapping into the best practices and key resources that helped India win its war against polio, WHO and the Ministry of Health initiated a systematic engagement of WHO’s national polio surveillance network for COVID-19 response.

map of confirmed cases and deaths from COVID-19

The national polio surveillance project generated useful, timely and accurate data to guide policies, strategies and interventions until transmission of the poliovirus was interrupted in the country, she said.

Contact tracing, hotspot mapping

Sanjay Srivastava, Chief of Disaster Risk Reduction Section at the Economic and Social Commission for Asia and the Pacific (ESCAP), says that intelligent contact tracing, analytics-based risk hotspot mapping and cluster predictions are all vital elements of the agile and smart national preparedness strategies that countries must develop to outpace the spread of COVID-19.

He said that India recently launched the ‘Aarogya Setu’ tracking app to help track new cases of infection by using Bluetooth and smartphones’ GPS systems which provide information to help determine whether someone has been near an infected person.

In Indonesia, WHO and its partners are providing advanced training for laboratory staff as well as health volunteers.

In Nepal, the United Nations team has launched a country preparedness and response plan requiring $38.23 million for humanitarian relief and initial interventions for essential social and economic recovery.

In Myanmar, WHO reported that in Rakhine district on Monday evening, a WHO vehicle transporting COVID-19 surveillance samples was involved in a security incident that left one person dead. “This incident once again puts the spotlight on the extreme hardships being faced by our corona warriors – our doctors, nurses, other health workforce -  especially while working in security compromised and hard-to-reach areas as they continue to contribute their best to save lives,” said Ms. Singh.

See also the UN News interview with the UN Resident Coordinator in India.