Fueled by the regime’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis, July has been the deadliest month of the pandemic for Myanmar, with over 2,000 fatalities in three weeks, more than 40 percent of the country’s total death toll since the virus first emerged in 2020.
As of Tuesday, Myanmar has recorded 5,567 COVID-related deaths since March 31 2020, when the country reported its first coronavirus fatality, according to the junta-controlled Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS).
MOHS statistics show that 2,233 people died between July 1 and July 20, with the highly transmissible delta variant spreading rapidly as Myanmar endures a devastating third wave of COVID-19. The MOHS figures reveal that 40.11 percent of all fatalities since last year occurred in July and are widely believed to be an underestimate, as they don’t include many of the people who died at home rather than in hospital.
Previously, the highest death toll Myanmar experienced in the pandemic came in November last year during the second wave of coronavirus, when 1,053 people died.
Charity workers claim that the current surge in deaths has mostly been caused by overwhelmed hospitals turning away COVID-19 victims and the shortage of medical oxygen, a crucial lifeline for people infected with the deadly delta variant.
In Yangon, one of the country’s hardest hit regions, crematoriums are struggling to cope with piles of corpses, many of whom died gasping for breath due to the shortage of oxygen.
On Wednesday last week, the United Nations Special Rapporteur for the situation on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, demanded an emergency international intervention to address a “third wave” of COVID-19 infections.
“An explosion of COVID cases, including the delta variant, the collapse of Myanmar’s healthcare system, and the deep mistrust of the people of Myanmar of anything connected to the military junta, are a perfect storm of factors that could cause a significant loss of life in Myanmar without emergency assistance by the international community,” said Andrews.
Myanmar managed to cope with the first and second waves of the virus under the democratically-elected NLD government led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.
Despite a death toll of 3,131 on January 31—one day prior to the junta’s coup—no one was turned away from hospitals in January. With popular support, the NLD government prepared field hospitals and improvised COVID-19 treatment centers, making sure everyone who needed treatment received it. Scrambling for oxygen cylinders was unheard of.
However, the country’s healthcare system has collapsed since the Feb. 1 coup. The regime has arrested or issued arrest warrants for the thousands of healthcare workers refusing to work under military rule.
As a result, many hospitals are now understaffed and unable to treat people—especially those with severe COVID-19 symptoms—who show up at their emergency rooms.
Turned away by hospitals, many people are having to treat themselves at home, including sourcing their own medical oxygen. This has caused panic buying and shortages of oxygen cylinders.
In response, the regime has imposed restrictions on oxygen plants, ordering them not to refill cylinders for individual use because “people are doing it unnecessarily”, according to a junta spokesperson at a press conference last week.
That ban has only led to more chaos. On Facebook, desperate family members beg to secure cylinders by any means as loved ones gasp for air. Many of these COVID-19 victims don’t recover.
Meanwhile, the junta is belatedly importing liquid oxygen from neighboring Thailand and China “to fulfil the people’s oxygen need”, according to regime-controlled state media.
But while the military launched a propaganda campaign on Myawaddy TV on Tuesday showing soldiers shouldering oxygen tanks to hospitals as a “donation”, the MOHS reported 286 deaths—the highest daily death toll since the coup.
Dr Zaw Wai Soe, a surgeon and the former vice chairman of the Yangon COVID-19 prevention, control and treatment coordinating committee under the ousted National League for Democracy (NLD) government, told local media that he was sick of the military regime’s poor management of the fight against the disease.
“What the junta is doing now is quite stupid,” said Dr. Zaw Wai Soe, who is now the health minister for Myanmar’s parallel National Unity Government, referring to the regime’s lack of foresight.
“They have to prepare in advance,” he said of the shortage of medical oxygen in hospitals, recalling how he struggled to secure more than 10,000 tanks per day during the second wave of coronavirus.
Myanmar’s vaccination program has stuttered under the junta, too. The ousted NLD government launched it on January 27, using vaccines donated and purchased from India. The program was scheduled to rollout nationwide on Feb. 5, but since the coup it has failed to move forward as expected.
Coup leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing said on July 18 that more vaccines from China were on their way to Myanmar this week, boasting that he expected to inoculate half of Myanmar’s 54 million-odd people this year.
But as of July, only just over 1.6 million had been vaccinated, he said.
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