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For weeks, Robbi has been making his way up and down the hilly dirt paths that crisscross a huge refugee camp in Bangladesh, lugging with him a box filled with small supply kits containing gloves, soap, and sanitizing liquid to donate to families. He hands out surgical masks to wiry men, curious children, and women in brightly colored headscarves, showing them how to properly fit them over their nose. Along the way, he pauses to make announcements through a small megaphone about proper hygiene and social-distancing measures. Along with a handful of others, Robbi is working, he told me, “block to block, door to door, shack to shack, to try to educate the people” about the coronavirus pandemic tearing across the globe.
Hundreds of thousands of refugees in Bangladesh, most of them Rohingya Muslims who fled a military crackdown in neighboring Myanmar, live in camps such as this one, but authorities last year cut off internet access in the camps and imposed restrictions on phones, actions they described as necessary security measures. The curbs, which were briefly eased yesterday before being reinstated, have greatly limited the amount of reliable news refugees can access. “People aren’t getting much information, but they are getting rumors,” said Robbi, a Rohingya refugee who asked to be identified by a nickname, because the outreach he is doing is unsanctioned. For those like Robbi who manage to evade these communication restrictions, the incessant news updates have made for grim and ominous reading. He watched as countries with robust health-care systems, such as Italy and the United States, failed to stop the spread of the virus, their hospitals pushed to the breaking point and their death tolls racing upward daily. If these places were unable to contain the outbreak, he wondered, what could happen in Bangladesh? The thought, he said, frightened him. “This virus is very strong,” he said. If it makes it to the camps, he fears that “no one can stop it. Many people will die.”