The novel coronavirus has obliged the world to adapt rapidly to its whim by affecting the lives of millions worldwide at its very onset. The situation in Bangladesh is no different. Wearing masks and washing hands frequently have become the new normal. The first laboratory-confirmed COVID-19 case was identified in Cox’s Bazar back on 23 March. Unforeseen circumstances often lead to unprecedented innovation as is exemplified by the Humanitarian Access Project.
To mitigate the spread of COVID-19 amongst the 860,000 Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar, the Government of Bangladesh moved rapidly to reduce the humanitarian footprint in the refugee camps.
Refugees in Cox’s Bazar live in cramped conditions in makeshift shelters made of bamboo and tarpaulin with less than one metre between each shelter. Physical distancing is not an option in the densely populated camps. Simple hygiene practices such as regular hand washing can be difficult in a place where even access to clean water is constrained. To mitigate the spread of the virus in and out of the camps and to ensure the continuity of the humanitarian assistance in the safest way possible, a solution had to be found.
The process enabling this solution is the Humanitarian Access Project. Jointly launched by the Logistics Sector and its lead-agency the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP), the Inter-Sector Coordination Group (ISCG) and the Office of the Refugee Relief and Repatriation Commissioner (RRRC), the project supports government authorities to regulate vehicle access to the camps while allowing humanitarians entry in accordance with the prioritised needs of the population.
Initially, the access control entailed RRRC approving a list of vehicles each day and the local and national law enforcement agencies manually cross-checking each vehicle against the RRRC approved list to ensure access is granted only to the authorized vehicles. This process created long waiting times and bottlenecks of up to two hours, leaving less time to deliver essential humanitarian assistance needed in the camps.
Eventually, those involved came up with the idea of QR coded vehicle passes for a limited number of vehicles. This vehicle monitoring system is now enabling the authorities to track the number of vehicles as well as passengers entering the camps daily. Now that the first cases of COVID-19 have been reported in the camps, this system becomes even more important to help the humanitarian community maintain essential services. Quick Response Code (QR-Code), is an effective, fast readable technology used for scanning various details of a vehicle.
Sahand Tahir, Information Management Officer in the Logistics Sector, explained how a fully digitized vehicle tracking tool was designed and introduced in less than 48 hours to minimize delays at the checkpoints.
“WFP staff assist the authorities to distinguish vehicles from the respective organisations going to the camps by scanning the unique QR codes the vehicles have been provided with. This enables the authorities to cross-check the vehicles and approve them for entry while practicing physical distancing as vehicle occupants are not required to get out of the vehicle,” he said.
At present, there are seven checkpoints where 11 staff are supporting the Bangladesh Army, Border Guard Bangladesh and local police in this work.
According to one of the drivers, “the process now takes anywhere between 10 and 15 seconds per vehicle. Before this system came into effect, we would have to wait long hours in traffic before our vehicles were given access to the camps. This would waste our valuable time needed to deliver humanitarian assistance in the camps. The system has made my life a lot easier.”
The WFP Representative in Bangladesh, Richard Ragan, emphasised, “This collaboration between agencies to get projects up and running is extremely important in the fast-paced environment of emergencies. The entire humanitarian community has reduced the number of vehicles and staff entering the camps to about 540 vehicles and 2300 staff each day.”
Among other things, these workers provide food, health & nutrition guidance, WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) and logistics services, and site management; for the entire camp. All of these are critically important activities for the refugee population in the context of COVID-19.
Since August 2017, more than 745,000 refugees have fled to Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, following an unprecedented exodus of Rohingya refugees from Myanmar. Presently, United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reports the total refugee population to stand at 860,000. As a result, the humanitarian operation supporting the government-led response was scaled-up to manage the crisis.