Residents and activists are voicing growing concerns about the use of the coronavirus pandemic by the military government to consolidate its power and crush the opposition, as the number of deaths from the virus is rising in Myanmar.
The per capita death rate for Myanmar has surpassed that of Indonesia and Malaysia in the past week to make it the worst country in Southeast Asia. The country’s ailing health system is rapidly becoming overwhelmed by new COVID-19-infected patients.
Medical oxygen supplies are at an all-time low. The government has made it difficult for private sellers to sell in many areas, claiming that it is trying stop hoarding. There are widespread accusations that the stock is being used to support government officials and military-run hospitals.
At the same time, medical workers have been targeted after spearheading a civil disobedience movement that urged professionals and civil servants not to cooperate with the government, known as the State Administrative Council.
“They have stopped distributing personal protective equipment and masks and they won’t let civilians who are suspected of supporting the democracy movement in hospitals. They’re also arresting doctors who support civil disobedience movements,” Yanghee Lee, former Myanmar human rights expert and founding member of Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, stated.
She said that the oxygen has been banned from civilian sales and people not supported by SAC. “They’re using the oxygen to save people against people.” “The military is weaponizing COVID.”
Although Zaw Min Tun, Myanmar’s Deputy Information minister, did not answer questions about the allegations regarding the allegations, there has been a public relations offensive by the leadership in response to growing pressures from both internal and external to end the pandemic.
This week’s state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper featured several articles highlighting the government’s efforts to increase oxygen supply and resume vaccinations.
Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing is the military commander in charge of the SAC. He was quoted as saying that efforts are being made to get support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and other unspecified “friendly” countries.
He was quoted as saying, “Efforts should be made to ensure better health of both the State and the People.”
On Thursday, Myanmar recorded another 342 deaths and 5,234 new infection. The 7-day average death rate per 1,000,000 people in Myanmar rose to 6.29, more than twice the rate recorded in India in May’s crisis. Due to a lack of reporting and testing, the Myanmar figures are believed to be an extreme undercount.
A doctor from Mawlamyine General Hospital in Myanmar’s fourth largest city said that there is a significant difference between the death toll from COVID-19 and the reality. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was afraid of reprisal from the government. “There are many people in the community who have lost their lives to the disease, and it is impossible to count them all.”
Social media is full of videos showing victims of the virus lying dead at their homes due to lack of treatment. There are also long lines of people waiting to be able to breathe oxygen because of these video. The government denies reports that cemeteries in Yangon have been overwhelmed but announced Tuesday they were building new facilities that could cremate up to 3,000 bodies per day.
Phil Robertson, Human Rights Watch’s deputy Asia director, stated that COVID-19 has been allowed to run wild. This is a major problem for the Burmese people and the wider region. New variants of the disease, fueled by the unchecked spread in Myanmar, could also be threatening. The problem is that the junta is more concerned with preserving its power than preventing the pandemic.
Myanmar is one the poorest countries in the region and was already in a vulnerable situation when the military took power. This triggered a violent political battle.
Myanmar was able to withstand a coronavirus epidemic last year under the leadership of Aung San Suu Kyi (a civilian former leader). Yangon was also closed off and travel restrictions were tightened. Although a few shots were administered from India and China, Suu Kyi’s government was overthrown in less than one week.
Civil disobedience increased after Suu Kyi’s departure. Public hospitals were effectively closed. Doctors and other staff refused work under the new administration. Instead, they ran makeshift clinics, for which they could be arrested if caught.
Some people have been admitted to public hospitals again, but the Mawlamyine doctor who was interviewed by AP stated that it was too risky.
“I could be arrested anytime by the junta if I return to the hospital,” said the doctor. He was part of the disobedience group and has been treating patients using supplies he has scrounged.
Tom Andrews, an independent U.N. Human Rights Council expert on Myanmar human rights, says that government forces have committed at least 260 acts of violence against medical staff and facilities, resulting in 18 deaths. At least 67 of the country’s health care professionals were already in detention, and 600 more are currently being sought.
After Suu Kyi’s ouster, military hospitals continued to operate but were ignored by many. The vaccination program slowed down and then stopped completely. Although there aren’t any hard numbers on the number of vaccinations received, it is believed that around 3% could have received two shots.
Joy Singhal, the head of the Red Cross’ Myanmar delegation, said that the rapid increase in COVID-19 diseases is “extremely concerning”, especially with limited access to health services and oxygen supplies.
He told AP that there was an urgent need to increase testing, contact tracing, and COVID-19 vaccines in order to curb the pandemic. “This latest surge is a devastating blow to millions in Myanmar, who are already struggling with worsening social and economic hardships.”
Andrews called on the U.N. Security Council to urge member states for a “COVID ceasefire” earlier this week.
He said that the United Nations could not afford to remain complacent as the junta continues to attack medical personnel and spread COVID-19 unchecked. They must end this violence so that nurses and doctors can deliver lifesaving care, and international organizations can assist with vaccinations and other medical care.”
China has recently begun distributing vaccines after a long period of inaction on humanitarian aid. China sent 736,000 vaccines to Yangon in March, the first of two million that will be donated. It also gave more than 10,000 to the Kachin Independence Army which has been fighting a decade-long insurgency along a northern border region where the virus has infected other parts of China.
Zhao Lijian, spokesperson for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, declined to comment on earlier this week’s report about the delivery to KIA. He said instead that “the epidemic” is a common enemy of all people.
According to The Global New Light, Myanmar has received 1,000,000 more doses from China.
COVID-19 has been reported to be widespread in Myanmar’s prisons. State-run MRTV television broadcast 610 Insein Prison prisoners being vaccinated on Wednesday. Social media users reacted with derision and skepticism to the report.
Lee stated that if the government is trying vaccines and other aid to their advantage, positioning itself as the panacea for the pandemic it’s too late.
She said, “The people now know and it’s taken too long.” “COVID is not man-made, but it was a result of complicity in the deliberate blocking of services. There’s no turning back.”