• Reuters, AFP-Jiji

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While authorities in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State are starting to vaccinate priority groups against COVID-19, they currently have no plan to include minority Rohingya Muslims that are living in densely packed camps, the junta-appointed local administrator has said.

Hundreds of thousands of Rohingya fled to Bangladesh during military operations in 2017, and those who remain complain of discrimination and mistreatment in a country that does not recognize them as citizens.

Local administrator Kyaw Lwin said the vaccine rollout had begun in the Sittwe township with 10,000 vaccinations for priority groups such as older people, health care workers, government staff and Buddhist monks.

There were no current plans for vaccinating any of the Muslims living in camps in Sittwe, he said.

“We are only following orders,” he said, declining to comment on whether the plan amounted to discrimination against the Rohingya, who say they can trace local roots back centuries.

“It all depends on how many vaccines we receive and the instructions we get. So far we haven’t received any instructions regarding that,” Kyaw Lin said.

Spokespeople for Myanmar’s health ministry and the military authorities did not answer calls seeking comment on the vaccination plans.

Myanmar’s COVID-19 response almost collapsed after a Feb. 1 coup as many health workers stopped work in protest, but the army is now trying to step up vaccinations as Myanmar faces its worst rise in infections.

An average of nearly 300 people a day have died in recent days, according to official figures that medics believe are significant underestimates.

The densely packed shacks and muddy narrow alleys where Rohingya live — behind barbed wire, to separate them from the Buddhist majority in Sittwe — have also been hit by the coronavirus, residents say.

From the Thet Kal Pyin camp, Nu Maung, 51, said authorities had collected names for possible vaccinations if shots become available for those who are over 60, but there was no sign of that happening.

He himself had suffered COVID-19 symptoms, but he was unable to get to a hospital for tests, he said.

“Many people are sick. A lot. A few people died, mostly older people,” he said.

Authorities have not given figures for infections in the camps.

At two other camps near Sittwe, Phwe Yar Gone and Thet Kal Pyin, residents said the authorities had not sent anyone to prepare the ground for potential vaccinations.

Fortify Rights group human rights specialist Zaw Win said it was shocking but unsurprising that Rohingya would not be a priority for vaccination.

“Rohingya have long faced extreme restrictions on their rights and in their everyday lives, including the right to health,” he said.

“Rohingya we are speaking to in Northern Rakhine have expressed fear and distrust of the state medical system and what might happen to them if they try to go to hospital with COVID-19 symptoms.”

An estimated 140,000 displaced Rohingya live in Rakhine state. The vast majority of them are confined to camps, with those in or around Sittwe housing more than 100,000 people.

Up to half a million more Rohingya remain in villages elsewhere in Rakhine. Rohingya residents of Maungdaw and Buthidaung, north of Sittwe, said some Rohingya villagers had been vaccinated but that supplies had now run out.

At least 700,000 Rohingya fled Rakhine for Bangladesh in 2017 during operations by the army under the command of Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, who is now prime minister and head of Myanmar’s junta.

U.N. investigators said the operations were carried out with “genocidal intent.” The army has denied that and said they were aimed at countering terrorists.

On Tuesday, Bangladesh began vaccinating Rohingya refugees living in congested camps as the impoverished South Asian nation battles a record surge in coronavirus cases.

Health officials say 2,600 COVID-19 cases and 29 deaths have been recorded in the camps, which house 850,000 Rohingya, but many experts say this is likely a gross underestimate.

The initial inoculation phase will see around 48,000 refugees over 55 get Chinese-made Sinopharm shots in the coming three days, local health chief Mahbubur Rahman said.

At Kutupalong, the largest refugee settlement and home to more than 600,000 people, Rohingya including many older people queued up to get their shots from health workers in protective suits.

Rohingya refugees wait to receive a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh, on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI
Rohingya refugees wait to receive a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine in Kutupalong refugee camp in Ukhia, Bangladesh, on Wednesday. | AFP-JIJI

“We are scared of corona. We heard it would be good for us if we get vaccinated — that’s why I came here today,” said 60-year-old grandmother Rahima Khatun.

“We need the vaccine to live through the current crisis. It will save us from the disease everyone is worried about,” said Mohammad Zafar, an older man.

Officials said they conducted a massive awareness campaign in the camps, with volunteers going door to door among the flimsy shacks where the refugees live.

Shamsud Douza, Bangladesh’s deputy refugee commissioner, said that a vaccination drive would also begin this week for 18,000 Rohingya controversially relocated to an island in the Bay of Bengal.

Bangladesh has been hit by a major surge in cases in recent months and much of the country of 169 million people is under lockdown, including the Rohingya camps.

The coronavirus has killed nearly 23,000 people and infected about 1.4 million in Bangladesh, most of them in recent months. Around 98% of new infections are from the more transmissible delta variant first detected in neighboring India.

“Vaccination of all age groups is the only effective way to stop the virus (from) spreading further among the Rohingya population in the camps,” said Romain Briey, head of the medical charity MSF in Bangladesh.

Hrusikesh Harichandan from the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies said the Rohingya were “living in the shadow of the global vaccine divide.”

“Vaccinations are vital for families to live with dignity because staying home is so tough for people in these cramped camps and most still have limited access to water and sanitation facilities, escalating risks from COVID-19.” Officials said they were worried that rains could compel many Rohingya to stay at home and not get vaccinated.

Last month monsoon rains triggered flash floods that destroyed 2,500 shelters and forced the evacuation of over 12,000 refugees.

“Fortunately, there were no rains this morning,” said Rahman, the local health chief.

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