Myanmar Takes On COVID-19: Is the Country Prepared?

By The Irrawaddy 28 March 2020

Kyaw Zwa Moe: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! The coronavirus, or CVOID-19, which has spread across the globe and terrified the world’s countries has finally arrived in Myanmar. On Monday night, Myanmar reported its first cases of COVID-19 in two men, who returned from the United States and the United Kingdom. We will see to what extent Myanmar can respond and prevent the outbreak. As ever, there are opposite political extremes in Myanmar. To what extent can this hamper the cooperation in fighting COVID-19, which some may call an “invisible enemy”? To what extent can the differing political views cause problems? Writer Ma Thida [Sanchaung], who is also a doctor, and Yangon regional parliament lawmaker Ko Nay Phone Latt join me to discuss this. I’m The Irrawaddy English editor, Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Myanmar has reported its first cases of COVID-19 in two men. The pandemic is cause for concern for the entire globe. Governments, civil society organizations, armed forces, police and individual citizens have to cooperate. To what extent do you think Myanmar can respond to this, given the political disagreements in the country?

Ma Thida:  Due to the political background of our country, the culture of trading blame is entrenched in our society. Rather than sympathize with the COVID-19 patients, some criticized them for coming back to Myanmar. If the culture of playing a blame game develops further, this will undermine unity. Now, the WHO has changed the term from “social distancing” to “physical distancing.” This means we have to show love, sympathize and help others socially while keeping a distance from them physically.

But here in our society, we don’t keep a distance from others physically, but we are distant from each other socially. When we come face-to-face with each other, we usually engage in an argument or we turn our backs to each other. This health issue is a cause for concern in such a society. In Italy, where people are not allowed to go outside their homes, neighbors sing to each other. In Spain, police entertain and sing songs while conducting patrols. At a time when people are having serious worries, everyone has an actual responsibility to not cause mental distress for others, so the WHO changed the term. If we can’t change our ways, in other words, if we continue with the culture of playing a blame game and fighting, [we will not be able to address this health issue]. We don’t know much about this virus. There is no timeframe for its outbreak. It could take years. If we can’t change our social fabric, we will suffer from serious consequences.

KZM: Ko Nay Phone Latt, you are the lawmaker for Thingangyun Township, where hand sanitizers were distributed and YBS [Yangon Bus Service] commuters were educated [about COVID-19] recently. But I haven’t seen other lawmakers doing so in their constituencies. The Union Solidarity and Development Party has called for the National Defense and Security Council (NDCS) to meet regarding COVID-19. How is the situation on the ground? Did people cooperate well? What do you think about the politicization of the issue?

Nay Phone Latt: We can see the government has been doing as much as it can since the virus was first reported [in China]. The government formed the national level committee tasked with prevention, control and treatment. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said in her speech that the people are the key [to addressing this health issue]. As you know, some have criticized this. But what she said is true, and it is obvious now. As the government can’t systematically check the returnees one by one, members of the community have to monitor them and report to the government, or the returnees themselves have to report their health conditions to authorities. It is critically important to do so now. All should set aside their differing political views and work to address the possible catastrophe. Thousands of people have died in Italy, which is much more developed than our country, so as we were conducting awareness campaigns, we stressed that prevention is better than cure.

But cases have been reported in Myanmar now. At this time, we should work together to control the outbreak. Speaking of public participation, some people on the ground are not well informed. I think information sharing is weak right now.

KZM: You mean the government’s distribution of information is not sufficient?

NPL: Yes. Though I am satisfied to an extent with [the government’s] preventive measures, information flow is not sufficient, and grass-roots groups are not informed adequately. Even we [in government] have to ask for information about certain things that we don’t know about COVID-19. I have had to ask for certain things, so that I could share the information to others. The grassroots groups have little information. There is a need to improve information flow.

KZM: Ma Thida, you have been an activist in promoting the right to information. Some people from other countries, especially Western countries, including officials from Human Rights Watch and observers of Myanmar, thought there had been no confirmed cases in Myanmar because the country covered it up. They thought so because there have been news blackouts in our country in the past. They didn’t believe that there wasn’t a single case in Myanmar, which shares a border of about 1,400 miles with China. I mean they have even politicized the issue. What is your response to this? Do you think the government has covered things up?

MT: There is little possibility that the government could cover it up. The virus is infectious, and depending on the age and health of the infected person, the condition can be critical—and in Myanmar society, people love to uncover hidden things.

KZM: I don’t think the government has covered anything up.

MT: No, it didn’t. It was just that there were no cases. We have continuously called for the right to information and freedom of expression. Normally, people make judgements based on their past experiences. They can’t make judgements without knowing anything. As we don’t know much about the virus, we are not able to make judgements, we don’t know how soon an infected person can recover. Some didn’t believe there were no cases because they have had past experiences with our country. We have seen a fair degree of transparency, especially in the Ministry of Health and Sports and with health professionals.

While some people both inside and outside the country have accused the government of covering things up, I am concerned that such claims might seriously affect the feelings of health professionals and technicians. They have no intentions to cover things up. They have worked professionally, and they want to find any cases because they want to control the disease.

It is clear now that the cases are imported cases, and not local transmission. It is only possible now to adopt a control strategy as we now know which places are high risk. We no longer need to make a shot in the dark at identifying the possible places where the virus could break out. We can stay in our homes, but health staff can’t—they have to work at the front line. It is important that they not only have the physical strength, but have mental strength as well. Their mental strength can be negatively affected by this societal culture of playing blame games, being critical and underestimating others. As their mental strength declines, there could be weakness and errors in their performance. If so, then not only them, but all of us will have to suffer consequences. This fact should be taken into consideration. As far as I’m concerned, the Health Ministry is working to the best of its abilities.

KZM: Ko Nay Phone Latt, you are participating in preventive measures as a lawmaker and also cooperating with the Yangon regional government. How is the cooperation and coordination?

NPL: The national-level prevention and control committee has been formed. But, I want committees to be formed down to the township level. The national level committee is comprised of all ministries. Similarly, the township level committees should be comprised of the information [ministry], police, Red Cross and so on. Then the process will be smoother. Currently, it is difficult to work at the township level, because there is no division of responsibilities. The General Administration Department (GAD) said it has not been instructed to form committees at the township level. But there is a [township] management team [of officials from government departments in that township].

I asked the GAD to summon a management team meeting, as COVID-19 cases have been reported in Myanmar. A quarantine facility has been opened at a football academy in Thingangyun. The facility received four people for quarantine [on Tuesday]. There is also Sanpya Public Hospital in Thingangyun. It would be better if there were a body to facilitate coordination. But without such a body, we will work together with the management team.

On the issue of information flow, there have been rumors. There are rumors because correct information can’t be supplied to the people in a timely manner. It is important to publish correct information in a timely manner. At the same time, we should be careful with terms and usage in supplying correct information in order not to cause panic.

KZM: There has been a lot of fake news about the issue. There were reports that the COVID-19 patient in Chin State died, when in fact he is in good condition. Perhaps they spread fake news deliberately or out of fear. Ma Thida, what is your recommendation regarding misinformation?

MT: Human rights apply to every issue. For the sake of the right to information, the government should make sure correct information reaches the public quickly. The failure to do so had devastating consequences in [China’s] Wuhan. The authorities silenced the doctor who first reported the virus. China still has not adjusted its policy on information control. It has a history of having to suffer as a result of its information control. When China suffered from great famine from 1958 to 1962, 15 million people died unnecessarily due to the cover-up by the government.  China still restricts information flow but compensates for the consequences using its prosperity.

But we can’t compensate like that. In our case, supplying correct information is the best option. It will make people take responsibility. As there is still no law on the right to information in our country, if the government or Health Ministry issues a by-law governing the provision of correct information—in other words, if it can properly handle information flow—it will help reduce misinformation a lot. The existing law only prescribes penalties for failures to report COVID-19 cases, but does not deal much with misinformation. The government can take action at the national level to address this. Some may try to exploit this situation politically or financially, and some websites may exploit it to get high clickthrough rates. Media agencies also have a responsibility. Some media agencies have used specific photos and wording to attract readers. For example, the photo of the “crying Italian president” was widely shared on social media when it is in fact not the Italian president. Rather than individuals trying to tell others what is fake news, the national government should take action against those who posted it. This will effectively prevent disinformation.

KZM: The Tatmadaw [Myanmar military] said at a recent press conference that they have made preparations [for COVID-19]. But critics point out that the Tatmadaw and the government have distanced themselves from each other politically, so there has been no active collaboration. In the United States and other countries, in cases of an emergency, the armed forces and police have to take the lead role in responding because they can be organized swiftly. Ma Thida, there has barely been collaboration between the government and the Tatmadaw. What are your recommendations?

MT: They don’t see eye to eye, but now they must set aside their disagreements and work in the interests of the country. The two sides can join hands because both of them want to show that they want to serve the interests of the country. It will be good if the two sides team up just to showcase their willingness. If parties and institutions can prove that they are willing to work with anyone, to do anything necessary for the interests of the country, they will win the trust of the people.

KZM: The national-level committee formed by the government consists of all the ministries, including the Defense Ministry and Home Affairs Ministry. To what extent do you think they can cooperate in the case of an outbreak?

NPL: In other countries, the armed forces have to act on instructions from the president, who is the head of state. But it is different in our country. The national-level committee is comprised of all the ministries, including the three controlled by the Tatmadaw. so they have to cooperate on tasks carried out by the national-level committee.

What the government is doing is right. The Health and Sports Ministry is working as a focal point, and at the township level, heads of health departments act as focal points, and they are supported by other ministries. Here, rather than waiting for the Health Ministry to give instructions, other ministries should take initiative. Some voiced criticisms as they haven’t seen the president [in public, working to address the issue]. Why do they want to see the president? The government is already doing what it needs to do. It is easy to make suggestions online. Some suggest imposing a lockdown on Yangon, but this is a big task, and has many consequences. I understand their concerns, but such suggestions can cause panic.

KZM: No one knows how long the outbreak may last. It may last for a year or more. What should be done if the election [slated to be held in November] needs to be postponed?

NPL: As far as I know, the government is working with extra caution, and it has also made correct decisions—banning flights from Wuhan, for example. Regarding the election, the government will make decisions as it thinks necessary.

MT: But my view is to make ending violent conflict a priority. The UN has called for a ceasefire.

KZM: But on Monday, the government declared the Arakan Army a terrorist group. Was this decision made to coincide [with the outbreak]?

MT: We feel sorry that it coincided. We will remain in deep water as long as problems are solved that way, militarily. Mostly, they only view things from their own points of view, and taking a birds-eye view has become rare. If you ask for a lockdown on Yangon, you need to think about the livelihoods of the grass roots. Even Singapore still can’t impose a lockdown, and the United Kingdom has been delaying its plan for a lockdown. A lot of things need to be taken into consideration to impose a lockdown. We are worried about the impact of the internet shutdown [imposed by the government] in Rakhine State. Now, the village [where one COVID-19 patient had visited] has been locked down in Tedim, in Chin State. At the same time, many people have been displaced by clashes in Chin State. If they don’t have access to the internet, if they don’t have the right to information, how can we explain to them the dos and don’ts and how they should cooperate? If there is no one to check [displaced people], how can we control it if there is an outbreak?

KZM: We have seen that people have gone into panic. What do you want to tell them?

MT: Individuals should be aware that each of them is important. Their words, actions and decisions can have an impact on the entire country, and the entire world. We are experiencing a pandemic now. Normally, what an individual decides may only change his life. But now, his actions and decisions can have an impact on the entire world. So I want people to learn how they should take care of themselves and how to get correct information. If every individual does this, this can change the world. I want the people to be more aware that they are playing an important part, and take more responsibility.

KZM: Personal hygiene, including hand washing plays a key part. Ko Nay Phone Latt, what is your view?

NPL: I have found two types of people at this time: one type wants to exploit this politically or financially. The other type is people who want to help. There is a need to properly manage these two types. I want harsh actions to be taken against those who exploit this. And there is a need to effectively manage those who want to help. At this time, tech geeks can help a lot. For quarantine purposes, we can use technology to trace returnees who come back through the Myawaddy [border checkpoint with Thailand]. [Those with tech skills] can help in establishing databases. There are people who can offer support financially or physically as volunteers. We need a system to properly manage the assistance. Only then will we be able to overcome this catastrophe. It is likely that more cases will be reported in Myanmar over time. The case in Yangon is not that worrying [as he was tested shortly after his arrival], but the patient in Chin State travelled to a few places. So, we need a proper management system to control the outbreak.

KZM: Thank you for your contributions!

Translated from Burmese by Thet Ko Ko.

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