Two Buddhist monks wearing face masks walk along a street in Yangon on Jan. 29. The Myanmar government intends to impose tough freedom of speech restrictions across all media concerning the Covid-19 respiratory virus. (Photo: AFP)
The chairman of the Asian bishops’ conference, Cardinal Charles Maung Bo of Yangon, has issued a heartfelt message about the coronavirus, emphasizing the sanctity of human life and compassion as authorities in Myanmar gear up for a possible outbreak.
“Our deep sympathies to people and countries affected by this lethal virus. This is the time of universal brotherhood of humanity. It is not a time for mutual blame. Let us remember every brother and sister affected in our prayers every day. Pope Francis has appealed for prayer support. He said, ‘Let us all pray for our brothers and sisters who are distressed by the cruel coronavirus epidemic,’” Cardinal Bo wrote on Facebook.
“While emergency responses are to be taken at a war footing, serious introspection needs to be taken at various levels at the ultimate meaning and destination of human life. A world devoid of the transcendental value of human life tends to commodify everything that is sacred, reducing human life to a cog in the market economy.”
Cardinal Bo said disasters and virus pandemics periodically reminded humanity that we have only one planet.
“We either stand together or fall together. Lessons need to be learned, transcending parochial interests,” he wrote.
Cardinal Bo’s message came two days after the Myanmar government said it wants to impose tough freedom of speech restrictions across all media, including social media, concerning the Covid-19 respiratory virus.
On Feb. 24, the Health and Sports Ministry said that while there were no confirmed coronavirus cases so far in a nation that shares a 2,200-kilometer border with China, it was concerned an outbreak could still occur as the number of infections was still rising in China.
“Only essential gatherings should be allowed and, if held, participants must strictly follow the precautionary guidelines issued by the ministry,” it said.
Myanmar’s churches and other places of worship have remained open, with Mass being held at Yangon’s St. Mary’s Cathedral at 5pm today.
A new bill proposed by the Health and Sports Ministry aims to replace the 1995 Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law. The ministry said it is aimed at those “who spread fake news intentionally.”
Importantly, the government can withhold vital information from the general population about where the disease might have spread. Breaching secrecy can result in hefty fines or being sued.
Press Council executives were wary of the new legislation, saying it could deprive people of life-saving information
Observers fear that such a move risks repeating the mistakes of Chinese authorities who shut down people commenting on the epidemic online in early January. That included eight medical professionals, one of whom died from the disease.
These restrictions are now seen as having helped the spread of the disease to accelerate into other parts of China and then the rest of Asia and the world.
Impoverished Myanmar has poor health facilities and until Feb. 21 was unable to test for the virus inside the country, instead sending samples to Thailand.
Since it became clear that the virus was more than just a localized problem in late January, Myanmar has not stopped people from China entering the country. Myanmar relies heavily on China for both tourism and investment.
While planes are still arriving, Chinese people are not. “They are simply not coming,” said one hotel owner. The Chinese make up close to 50 percent of hotel visitors. Tour operators in financial and cultural hub Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, said business had collapsed.
Trade with China has also been affected, particularly for fruit, vegetables and seafood, after China closed four border crossings at the start of the Lunar New Year to help contain the spread of the disease, according to Frontier Myanmar.
Factory owners in Yangon told UCA News that they are closing their doors as items and parts from China had not arrived due to the almost total shutdown of the Chinese industrial sector, where countless millions of migrant workers have not returned to work following the extended Spring Festival break that has lasted a full calendar month.
“The international impact of this virus attack is deadly,” Cardinal Bo wrote. “The economy is taking a hard hit in many countries. Tourism is in violent turbulence, markets are wobbling. Though it is not apocalypse, the WHO (World Health Organization) has declared the crisis one of the most critical challenges to humanity.”
South Korea plans to test about 200,000 members of a secretive church believed to be at the center of the country’s coronavirus outbreak. The founder of the Shincheonji Church of Jesus agreed to provide authorities with the names of all its members.
South Korea has had 10 deaths and 977 confirmed cases, making it the worst-affected country outside mainland China.
As of today, 2,704 people had died from the Covid-19 virus from 80,289 confirmed cases worldwide.