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Mindy BelzVoices Mindy Belz

Storm of trouble

A super cyclone adds to Asia’s coronavirus fears

With record gusts from Cyclone Amphan bearing down on India and Bangladesh, humanitarian aid workers saw a triple threat coming to life before their eyes: The strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal was about to overwhelm years of a chronic refugee crisis—that weeks of coronavirus spread had already compounded.

“Our worst fears have been confirmed,” said Dipankar Datta, Oxfam’s country director in Bangladesh.

On May 14 two people living in the world’s largest refugee camps at Cox’s Bazar tested positive for COVID-19. By May 18 at least 197 people in the area tested positive, and one person had died from the disease. On May 20 Cyclone Amphan made landfall.

With wind gusts above 165 miles per hour, the storm bested a 1999 super cyclone velocity. It built over 18 hours from a Category 1 to a Category 5 cyclone, dropped to a Category 3 just before landfall, and spread a massive 430 miles across some of the most densely populated territory in the world.

Apart from God’s mercies, natural disasters won’t tarry during a pandemic.

In its path were the Bangladeshi ports that host over 1 million mostly Rohingya Muslim refugees who fled a brutal military offensive in Burma starting nearly three years ago. At Cox’s Bazar, groups like Oxfam, World Vision, Food for the Hungry, and others have worked at a fever pace against COVID-19, distributing soap by the hundreds of thousands and building “contactless” washing stations by the tens of thousands, hoping to forestall a deadly spread. Suddenly they turned their attention also to vulnerable Bangladeshis living in low-lying coastal areas.

Local authorities evacuated 2.2 million people to storm shelters, said CARE spokesperson Kalei Talwar, shelters “where social distancing is virtually impossible.” At the camps, where refugees could not evacuate, CARE handed out tie-down kits to reinforce tents. 

Cyclone Amphan is a crisis on top of a crisis, say aid workers. Many shelters normally used for cyclone evacuations became coronavirus quarantine sites. Aid groups, now months into preparing for the pandemic, face a drain on resources they normally use to combat natural disasters. They also must confront fear among locals accustomed to evacuations during the Asian cyclone season. People were reluctant to leave their coastal homes, worried about the spread of disease in storm shelters. Water contamination that heavy rains and flooding normally cause also could lead to a spike in illnesses.

Compounding the expected toll: More than 1,000 Rohingya refugees have been lost at sea since late March, when Southeast Asian nations tightened their borders to keep out potential carriers of the coronavirus. Most of them had fallen prey to smugglers who promised freedom, for a price, and escape from overcrowded camps.

The Bangladesh Coast Guard rescued nearly 400 malnourished and dehydrated Rohingya refugees from boats that in April Malaysia denied entry. Human rights groups tracked by satellite the remaining wooden boats for weeks and petitioned neighboring countries to take them. But by May 1 they had lost sight of them. Fishing vessels and freighters reported possible sightings in the southern Bay of Bengal as the cyclone gathered strength.

Bangladesh refused to return some of the rescued Rohingya to the Cox’s Bazar camps, instead planning to house them on the island of Bhasan Char, directly in the cyclone’s path. With the pandemic, officials said they could no longer take in refugees. “We don’t want any more Rohingya,” said Foreign Minister A.K. Abdul Momen.

That’s a blunt assessment that even the wealthiest nations share during the pandemic. The United States, already under a restrictive refugee ceiling set by the Trump administration, has all but zeroed out new refugee arrivals. The United States admitted 27 refugees in April and 24 in May, down from an average 1,400 refugees per month from January to March. 

Apart from God’s mercies, natural disasters won’t tarry during a pandemic, and man-made catastrophes won’t suddenly solve themselves.