Strongest cyclone ever recorded in the Bay of Bengal is hitting India and Bangladesh, threatening millions already affected by COVID-19.
Millions of people are being evacuated in India and 12,000 shelters have been prepared in Bangladesh to house nearly five million people in the path of Cyclone Amphan. Oxfam, working with partners, is delivering life-saving assistance including safety equipment, clean water, sanitation, food, and shelter for people in the cyclone’s path.
“Cyclone Amphan is a crisis on top of a crisis,” says Pankaj Anand, director of programs and humanitarian response for Oxfam India. “Many of the cyclone evacuation shelters are already being used as coronavirus quarantine centers or housing migrants who have returned to their coastal communities because of lockdown. People are worried there won’t be enough space in the shelters and that they might catch coronavirus in them.”
In India, Oxfam is working with local partners in communities in Odisha and West Bengal pre-positioning emergency supplies such as shelter material (tarpaulins, ground sheets, blankets), clean water, sanitation, hygiene kits, solar lanterns, and dignity kits for women and girls. It is also providing training to ensure that the cyclone response is carried out in a safe way to prevent coronavirus spreading further in the community.
Oxfam is also helping Rohingya refugees in camps in the Cox’s Bazar area in southern Bangladesh. “It is already a huge challenge to contain the spread of coronavirus amongst the Rohingya refugees living in over-crowded camps, sharing water and toilet facilities,” says Dipankar Datta, Oxfam’s country director in Bangladesh.
“Cyclone Amphan is also a major threat to the millions of vulnerable Bangladeshis living in low-lying, flood-prone coastal areas,” Datta adds. Oxfam is working with 10 organizations to help 389,394 people in southern coastal communities with safe drinking water and evacuation assistance. Oxfam partners are working with local government officials to help evacuate people in the path of the storm. One of them called Jago Nari is helping to disinfect cyclone shelters. Oxfam partners are distributing soap, dry food, masks, and clean water from treatment plants provided by Oxfam.
Added risk from pandemic
Without assistance, people will be at risk not only to water-borne and other infections rampant during inclement weather, but also coronavirus if their immunity is compromised.
Between the two countries, there are nearly 130,000 reported cases of COVID-19, including an increasing number of cases in Rohingya refugee camps in Cox’s Bazar.
In Bangladesh, there are fears that up to 1.4 million people may be displaced due to the cyclone and 600,000 homes could be destroyed.
In the low-lying coastal areas, Oxfam is also preparing de-salination plants to provide safe drinking water because when the areas flood, water becomes salty and undrinkable.
Parul Begum is a community leader in a small vulnerable coastal village in Bangladesh supported by Oxfam partner, Society for Development Initiatives. She said that people are more concerned about coronavirus than going to the shelters for safety. “This cyclone is one of the most powerful ones we have faced so far, but people are really worried about how they will maintain social distancing in the cyclone shelters. We do not go to the shelters alone but also take our cattle with us. People are unsure about the hygiene and safety arrangements. Also, the cyclone shelters do not have adequate facilities for expectant and lactating mothers, or sufficient privacy for women and girls.”