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Repression more dangerous than Covid-19 in military-ruled Myanmar

The people of Myanmar have shifted their attention from the deadly virus to the pro-democracy movement
Repression more dangerous than Covid-19 in military-ruled Myanmar

Protesters with their faces painted stand near a burning makeshift barricade during a protest against the military coup in Yangon on March 30. (Photo: AFP)

Published: March 31, 2021 10:44 AM GMT
Updated: March 31, 2021 10:53 AM GMT

A week ago, local authorities went around Mandalay, Myanmar’s second-largest city, announcing Covid-19 vaccinations for those aged over 60. The announcement, however, didn’t attract much attention from residents who have little trust in the military regime.

“We don’t dare to be vaccinated as we are not sure what kind of vaccination will be used. It is better to risk getting infected with the deadly virus than getting vaccinated under the junta,” one resident said.

With Myanmar again under the darkness of military rule following the coup on Feb. 1, the country is still reeling from the second wave of the contagion.

However, the people of Myanmar have shifted their attention from the deadly virus to the pro-democracy movement.

Undeterred by the threat of the coronavirus, tens of thousands of people have taken to the streets across the country to show their opposition to the military overthrowing an elected government.

Despite protesters wearing face masks, there is no social distancing as they chant slogans, sing songs of defiance and hold placards.

An educational video featuring civilian leader Aung San Suu Kyi washing her hands on state-run television has disappeared. Instead, the military’s propaganda talks, songs and news about the regime’s official meetings and activities dominate state-run TV.

Suu Kyi and President Win Myint face various trumped-up charges including violating Covid-related laws.

There was a glimmer of hope in January when vaccines began to arrive from India while the then Suu Kyi-led civilian government opened foreign and local currency accounts to purchase vaccines.

Healthcare workers and the elderly were the first in line for vaccination and health officials had planned for 20 percent of Myanmar’s nearly 54.4 million people to be vaccinated under the Covax program in 2021.

In a message in January, Cardinal Charles Bo of Yangon said hope was rising as scientists had found vaccines.

He frequently spoke out about the various pandemics, describing decades of civil war, thousands living in IDP camps, drugs and looting as pandemics.

Nearly 300 people were infected with the coronavirus from 16,279 tests with six fatalities on Jan. 31, according to data from health officials. But there were just two deaths and four infected with Covid-19 from 1,987 tests on Feb. 8.

The low rate of testing came after thousands of health workers including doctors and nurses walked out from hospitals, clinics and laboratories to join the civil disobedience movement (CDM) in early February.

The strike by health workers has stopped Covid-19 testing and shut down state-run hospitals across Myanmar.

In January, the Ministry of Health and Sports released detailed reports on Covid-19 numbers including data from various regions. But much of this reporting has ceased since early February.

Public health experts observed that such low figures do not indicate a waning crisis but reveal the collapse of the ability to test for and detect cases, according to Frontier, a Yangon-based independent news outlet.

As of March 29, Myanmar reported just eight people had tested positive from 1,109 swabs taken and zero fatalities, according to the health ministry.

According to the latest data from Johns Hopkins University, the Southeast Asian nation’s Covid tally had reached 142,393 cases with 3,206 deaths.

Doctors and nurses were the first civil servants to join the CDM, which has been gaining momentum in the country.

“Limiting access to lifesaving interventions is a complex ethical challenge. Our duty as doctors is to prioritize care for our patients, but how can we do this under an unlawful, undemocratic and oppressive military system?” prominent physicians wrote in a letter published in The Lancet on Feb. 19.

Humanitarian crisis

The UN said nearly all Covid-19 testing and treatment have stopped and it’s unclear how the coronavirus vaccine rollout, started just before the coup, will continue.

“We are really very worried about an impending humanitarian crisis. The public health system has practically collapsed,” Andrew Kirkwood, UN resident coordinator in Myanmar, said during a briefing on March 19.

Furthermore, security forces have occupied 36 hospitals around the country and in some cases patients have been evicted from these hospitals, according to the UN.

The global organization said Covid-19 prevention activities, including surveillance and contact tracing, lab testing, infection prevention and control, case management, and operational support and logistics have significantly deteriorated since Feb. 1.

Myanmar has 8.6 physicians and 10 nurses and midwives per 10,000 people, falling short of the World Health Organization’s recommended minimum.

Health expenditure in Myanmar was just 5 percent of GDP in 2016, according to a UN report.

Myanmar’s public health system has all but collapsed due to mismanagement by the military over the last six decades.

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