Our work overseas

The difference soap and water can make in a refugee camp

As Covid-19 spreads around the world, water and soap are more important than ever before. But what if you didn’t have access to them?

Water and soap are more important than ever before. As we all know, they save lives. But what if you didn’t have access to soap or clean water?

As coronavirus spreads around the world, we are all vulnerable. But now with the first cases of Covid-19 being recorded in the world's largest refugee camp, refugee families and those forcibly displaced are at even greater risk.

In Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh, more than 854,000 Rohingya refugees live in bamboo and tarpaulin shelters, in precarious conditions. It is one of the largest and most densely populated refugee camps in the world.

An average of 4.6 people share one shelter, which is often just a one-room tented structure with plastic canvas for walls, built a mere 10cm away from the next shelter.


To put this in context, New Zealand’s average household size is 2.7 people. And the sizes of our houses seem massive by comparison, some 208 square metres.

Inside the camps families don’t have access to running water or soap. They must leave their shelters to collect water or to use shared toilets and bathing facilities, and up to 20 people may use the one bathroom.

Given the congested conditions and shared water and sanitation facilities, the risk for disease transmission has always been high – and now with cases of Covid-19 being recorded, the families living there face a health catastrophe.

But just 21 cents is enough to provide a vulnerable family with a bar of soap. A gift of $42, could provide 200 bars of soap to help fight Covid-19.

A bar of soap can be lifesaving

Khatera, a 30-year-old mother of three, holds a bar of soap in her hands. She admires it as if it was a precious stone, and then rubs her son’s wet hands.

UNI325468 (1)
UNI325468 (1)

As Covid-19 continues to spread around the world, UNICEF has supplied more than 84 tonnes of soap to vulnerable families like Khatera’s, enabling them to practice proper handwashing. For Khatera, the 12 bars of soap she has received will make all the difference. 

“I won’t have to worry about buying soap for the time being,” she says. “Instead I can use that money to buy food for my children.”

Two years ago, Khatera left Badghis, a province in northwestern Afghanistan. They were not the only ones to leave their village. Many others followed, forced to leave by one of the worst droughts in decades, further compounded by unending conflict in the area.

But right now coronavirus, and her current economic situation, make Khatera worried. Sitting on a worn-out rug, with her child on her knee, at her makeshift house, she dabs at tears using the corner of her scarf. 

“I am worried for my children,” she says.

The risk of an outbreak is ‘grave’


The Covid-19 disease outbreak is expected to be beyond the capacity of the current health infrastructure in the camps.

Dr. Paul B. Spiegel is the director of the Center for Humanitarian Health at the Johns Hopkins University Bloomberg School of Public Health, where he also works as a professor. He is concerned about the implications of Covid-19 spreading amongst densely populated refugee camps, such as those in Cox’s Bazar.

“It would be very bad for a variety of reasons,” he says. “It’s not a camp; it’s many camps. It would overwhelm not just the population but the healthcare workers themselves.”

UNICEF teams and partners are working to provide regular safe water and soap supplies for 240,000 Rohingya refugees, over half of whom are children.

At the same time, our teams on the ground are using our existing networks of trained community mobilisers and volunteers from the refugee population to teach children best practice handwashing, and rapidly disseminate information on how children and families can best protect themselves from infection, the symptoms of COVID-19, and where to seek healthcare - now that the virus has arrived.

Can you imagine living in a makeshift shelter in an overcrowded camp, where social distancing is nearly impossible, and soap and clean water are scarce? These are perfect conditions for a disease like Covid-19 to run rampant.

We can bring urgent help to vulnerable refugee families, we just need your support.