Crematoriums Overflow in Myanmar’s Biggest City as COVID Deaths Spike Amid Oxygen Shortage

By The Irrawaddy 14 July 2021

Dead bodies are being lined up, head to toe, awaiting cremation at Yangon’s crematoriums—the result of COVID-19 patients in Myanmar’s biggest city being turned away in increasing numbers by hospitals that are overwhelmed and lack supplies of medical oxygen, a crucial lifeline for victims of the coronavirus’ deadly new variant.

On Tuesday, Yangon’s Yeway Cemetery saw a steady stream of ambulances carrying bodies to funerals from the morning hours. The same scenes are being played out at the city’s other three burial sites, according to charity workers.

At Yeway Cemetery, a corridor leading to the crematorium teemed with body-laden trolleys. Many of the corpses had been collected by charity workers directly from homes where the victims died of COVID-19.

The parking lot at Yeway Cemetery on July 12. / Supplied

“They died due to lack of oxygen,” said one worker from a charity organization. He noted that his charity alone took 50 bodies to the cemetery on Tuesday. It is just one of many social charities in the city volunteering to handle COVID-19 victims’ remains.

“So, just guess the number of deaths,” he added.

Myanmar has been experiencing a public health crisis since late last month with the spread of the deadly new variant of COVID-19. As of Tuesday, the country’s Health Ministry had reported 201,274
positive cases with 4,036 deaths since March last year. Given the number of people dying at home, however, the official death toll is believed to be underreported.

Bodies are lined up to be cremated at Yeway Cemetery on July 12. / Supplied

Nearly 90 percent of the country has been affected by the third wave of coronavirus infections, with 296 of 330 townships nationwide reporting COVID-19 cases since May.

Making matter worse, the country’s healthcare system has collapsed since the military coup in February. The regime has arrested and issued arrest warrants for many healthcare workers who have been on strike, refusing to work under military rule. As a result, many hospitals that were able to cope with the influx of patients amid the country’s first and second waves of the virus before the coup 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 have to rely on treatment at home, including finding 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’s comments at a press conference on Monday. The 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 sufferers don’t make it.

On Tuesday, the parking lot at Yeway Cemetery was crammed with ambulances from charities. The number of people in hazmat suits outnumbered the mourners. Bodies wrapped in blankets or body bags lay untouched for hours before being cremated.

“We had to wait for a long time to get a parking space to unload the body,” said a charity worker.

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