Interview

‘Tonzang is Seeing a COVID-19 Outbreak’: Township Health Chief

By The Irrawaddy 4 June 2021

COVID-19 infections have resurfaced in Myanmar while the health care system is on the verge of collapse amid post-coup turmoil. Tonzang Township in Chin State on the Indian border has seen a spike in COVID-19 cases.

A total of 167 COVID-19 cases were reported in Tonzang by Wednesday with five deaths between May 30 and Thursday. The military regime has imposed stay-at-home orders upon three towns — Tamu and Kale in Sagaing Region and Tonzang.

Tonzang Township Health Department head Dr. Htan Shin Khaing talked to The Irrawaddy about the COVID-19 situation in the township.

How is the COVID-19 crisis in Tonzang?

There were 52 new cases on June 2. It was the highest daily rise in Tonzang. There were only around 20 cases in previous days.

How did infections happen?

We believe it has spread from India.

What are the difficulties in providing treatment?

We don’t even have vitamin supplements to give to patients. The medicines we requested from the health ministry have not arrived due to the instability. We can only ask patients to buy medicines from private pharmacies. Doctors collectively contribute and buy some medicines for patients. But we can’t afford to buy vitamin supplements for them. They are expensive. We have no medicines at the hospital.

How is the department handling the oxygen requirements of COVID-19 patients?

Some donors have supplied oxygen. We have not yet run out. But I am afraid supplies will not last long if the cases increase. And we don’t have ventilators for emergency cases. No donors have donated a ventilator.

Does your department have to rely on individual donors rather than the health ministry?

The ministry has sent 3,000 testing kits. We have enough kits. We have asked for medicines.

What happened to people who have died in Tonzang from COVID-19?

People with weak immunity, including pregnant women, are more vulnerable and struggle to resist COVID-19. The new variant is stronger than the previous strains, which had little impact on people with normal immune systems. But most of those infected with the new variant are bedridden after one or two days. They are exhausted and struggle to leave their beds even if they don’t have breathing problems.

All the patients lose their sense of smell. Cases appeared in early May. As health workers have joined the civil disobedience movement, they tried home remedies and over-the-counter drugs. But they didn’t get better so they came to the hospital. We carried out COVID-19 tests when the hospital became full.

What proportion of people tested positive for COVID-19?

Around 28 to 30 percent tested positive.

Are you worried?

It is best to stay indoors. Only one member of each household should go out to buy food. And they must wear masks, hats and aprons when outside and remove them outside before entering their homes. Otherwise, there is a real risk of cases spreading across the township. Tonzang is seeing a COVID-19 outbreak and it will become difficult to control.

People experiencing symptoms usually take medicines at home and come to the hospital for a COVID-19 test if they don’t recover. Previously, we had to persuade them to come for a test but now they come voluntarily. They are scared.

Can the hospital cope with all the patients?

No, we can’t treat them all. We can’t estimate how many more patients there will be. We have turned the hospital into a COVID-19 center and no longer accept other patients suffering from other problems. And we have opened a fever clinic for outpatients with COVID-19 symptoms.

If they test positive, we take them to a quarantine center which is run by volunteers. Only those who need oxygen are admitted to the hospital and have contact with doctors. We give volunteers at the quarantine center instructions over the phone. A doctor visits the center each day. We are short of health staff. Between 60 to 70 percent of staff are on strike.

What is your plan to deal with COVID-19 without enough staff and medicines?

We need more health staff and medicines. The situation is alarming. Other townships should take care. Everyone should take COVID-19 preventative measures, especially because of the [post-coup] turmoil.

How many quarantine centers are open?

There is only one quarantine center but, if necessary, we will have to use churches and gyms.

Can you describe the treatment given to the pregnant woman who died in late May?

She was eight months’ pregnant. There was no doctor when she arrived at the hospital. Doctors had fled for various reasons. Only nurses provided her treatment. Volunteer doctors arrived two days later. If there was a specialist, we might have been able to save the baby. Her lungs were badly swollen and she died on May 30 after being admitted on May 28.

What else do you want to say?

Most of the victims died within three days after testing positive. This variant is different from previous ones and strong. Young people should be relieved if they are sick for five to six days with a sore throat. They will feel too tired to do anything for two weeks even after recovery. Those who died do not survive that long. They died two to three days after the virus reached their lungs. It is frightening and people should exercise utmost caution.


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