COVID-19 response unfolds underground in junta-led Myanmar


  • The total death toll has already increased by 50% this month
  • Military leader calls for volunteers and cooperation
  • Oxygen shortage for people with COVID
  • The public’s self-help response echoes that of past disasters

July 18 (Reuters) – For a week, 21-year-old student Phoe Thar went out at dawn to collect oxygen cylinders from the homes of people with coronavirus in Myanmar’s second city, Mandalay.

He and other volunteers are lining up tanks outside charities for refill and return, trying to save lives in a country whose health care system has largely collapsed since the coup. February 1 and now facing its worst wave of COVID-19 infections.

Funded by donors on social media, Phoe Thar and her team are part of a growing grassroots effort that bypasses authorities and echoes how the Burmese people have responded to crises in previous decades of military rule. .

“As the number of people who need oxygen tanks is huge, it’s a huge challenge for us,” Phoe Thar told Reuters by phone from Mandalay.

Health Ministry figures showed deaths from COVID-19 stood at 231 on Sunday against a record high of 233 on Saturday, but doctors and funeral services say the real toll is much higher and crematoriums are overloaded.

The official total death toll has already risen by 50% this month to 5,000 with the spread of the Delta variant which has also increased elsewhere in Southeast Asia.

Reuters was unable to reach the health ministry or a junta spokesperson to comment on the outbreak and the public’s response.

Junta leader Min Aung Hlaing appealed for volunteers and national cooperation at a meeting on the coronavirus emergency in comments broadcast on state television on Sunday.

“Some people don’t dare to volunteer because of the bullying. Some people want to register but they have different reasons and difficulties,” he said. “As I said before, I welcome them. Cooperation is required.”

State newspaper Global New Light of Myanmar said producing more oxygen was a priority. Critics of the junta say lives have been lost because of restrictions it has placed on some private oxygen providers in the name of stopping hoarding.

A health system that was already among the weakest in the region collapsed after the coup as many health workers joined a civil disobedience movement to oppose the junta. Vaccination, screening and prevention measures against COVID-19 are all at a standstill.

People line up to fill oxygen tanks as cases of coronavirus disease (COVID-19) increase in Mandalay, Myanmar on July 14, 2021 in this still from a video filmed on July 14, 2021. Phoe Thar via REUTERS

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An underground doctor who recently volunteered on social media said he was inundated with hundreds of requests. When he made house calls, he found that almost all of the sick had symptoms of coronavirus and most had low oxygen levels.

“The situation is serious,” said the doctor, who works under the name Pa Gyi. “Hospitals can’t do anything for them … I can’t just sit back and watch patients become helpless.”

He contrasted the situation with that of the previous two waves of coronavirus which were largely brought under control by the government of elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who is now impeached and on trial on a series of charges.

Suu Kyi’s government had the advantage of volunteers who ran quarantine and testing centers and helped put some of the weight on public hospitals.

But far fewer are coming forward to help a military government that still faces daily protests against its takeover after alleged fraud in an electoral landslide by Suu Kyi’s party last year.

Most of the volunteers in Mandalay from the first and second waves of coronavirus infections were gone, Phoe Thar said.

Instead, groups like his are organizing themselves, resembling how the people of Myanmar often helped each other during disasters in the past – especially after a previous junta’s limited response to the cyclone. devastating Nargis in 2008.

Groups of friends in the main city, Yangon, told Reuters they were teaming up to try to import oxygen cylinders from neighboring Thailand.

Residents of Kawlin town in the western Sagaing region are trying to raise at least $ 30,000 to import their own oxygen generator from China.

“Now we are experiencing the third wave of COVID. We don’t know how many waves we will be again,” one of the organizers told Reuters, declining to be named for fear of reprisal. “We must now act as if we have no government.”

Reuters staff reports; Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Edmund Klamann

Our standards: Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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