The COVID-19 pandemic in Myanmar has reached a critical level.
The people are having to battle this crisis on top of the extreme political turbulence that has arisen since the military coup of 1 February. State infrastructure is near collapse, there is no trust in public authorities, and oxygen is running out.
The country is struggling for breath.
"The coup has resulted in a near-total collapse of the healthcare system, and healthcare workers are being attacked and arrested. The virus is spreading through the population, very fast indeed. By some estimates, in the next two weeks, half of the population of Myanmar could be infected with COVID"
- Britain’s UN Ambassador Barbara Woodward
The ruling military junta has weaponised the pandemic to further cement their control. Since February, health care workers have been arrested, access to medical facilities has been restricted, and oxygen supplies have been seized. People have even been attacked by security forces when seeking medical help. There is a lack of oxygen cylinders in the country and the regime have restricted who can import and distribute oxygen from over the border.
Fear of seeking medical attention has greatly exacerbated the situation and undoubtedly led to more suffering. The official infection figures and death rate - already the worst per capita in South East Asia - are only a fraction of the real toll. One crematorium in Yangon is known to be performing over 300 daily cremations, it’s limit is meant to be 50, with more than 60% of the country’s Covid fatalities reported to have come in July alone. The doctors strike following the Coup in February deeply wounded the health system, the Delta variant has all but finished it off.
“The corpses are lined up day and night.” “Some people have to keep the corpses in their houses for days until they can find a hearse to carry them so they become rotten.”
- Yangon ambulance driver Bo Sein
Around 600 medics have had to stop working as warrants have been issued for their arrest. Many of these are doctors, unable to return to their hospitals and help with the increasingly difficult situation. Some have chosen to set up underground surgeries, however, there have been reports of the Tatmadaw using intimidation, kidnap and murder of staff to close these down.
Add to all of this, there a complete distrust of the vaccination programme in Myanmar. Not only are the vaccines being administered by the Tatmadaw government, but all the vaccines being used are being produced in China. This is a problem as the Chinese Communist Party are perceived to have supported this and previous junta governments. Vaccine hesitancy is allowing Covid to thrive, currently less than 3.5% of the population are fully vaccinated.
What makes the situation particularly frustrating is that the pandemic response in Myanmar was, by all accounts, successful during the 1st and 2nd waves. At the end of January the 2nd wave had passed and over 5m vaccinations had been acquired, everything was on track. However, since the 1st June the delta variant brought about the 3rd wave and reported deaths have risen by over 361%. With a lack of a functioning healthcare system and vaccine hesitancy, there is a serious concern on what the inevitable 4th & 5th waves will bring.
"In Yangon, it’s common to see three types of lines, one before ATMs, one for oxygen supplies – which is very dangerous because people are literally being shot at by the Myanmar forces for standing in line for oxygen – and the third being lines at crematoriums and morgues"
- UN Special Rappouteur Tom Andrews
"(the) triple impact of poverty, the current political unrest and economic crisis (coupled with the rapidly spreading third wave of COVID-19, that is) practically like a tsunami that’s hit this country, (the people of Myanmar are) experiencing the most difficult moment in their lives"
- World Food Programme Myanmar Director Stephen Anderson