Myanmar Govt Cancels Mass Gatherings and Thingyan Water Festival as Coronavirus Precaution

By Nyein Nyein 13 March 2020

In the wake of the World Health Organization’s declaration that the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is a pandemic, the Myanmar government has banned public gatherings, including the upcoming Thingyan Water Festival, from today until the end of April.

The President’s Office said in a statement issued on Friday afternoon that, “as COVID-19 can rapidly spread in crowded places, [the government] has requested the public not to hold public gatherings, including ceremonies and festivals, starting from today until April 30. If needed, the suspension period will be extended.”

It said there have still not been any confirmed cases of COVID-19 in the country and urged the public to follow the announcements and warnings issued by the Ministry of Health and Sports.

According to Deputy Information Minister U Aung Hla Tun, the government made the decision to restrict public gatherings at an emergency meeting on COVID-19 prevention on Thursday afternoon at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The meeting was led by State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, who is also foreign affairs minster.

While the deadly virus has claimed nearly 5,000 deaths globally, Myanmar has still not seen any confirmed cases. The country’s Health Ministry last month recommended that public gatherings should be limited or canceled amid the global rise in infections.

Daw Aung San Suu Kyi poses for a picture with local residents after a public meeting in Depayin, Sagaing Region on Wednesday. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

“We decided not to allow public gatherings that draw large crowds from Friday, March 13 to the end of April,” U Aung Hla Tun wrote on his Facebook page late on Thursday night. He added that more detailed announcements would be made by the respective ministries later.

Myanmar annually celebrates the nationwide Thingyan Water Festival in April to welcome the traditional New Year. Normally, the festival attracts tens of thousands of revelers. Similarly, summer in Myanmar is a season of pagoda festivals, which also draw thousands of festival-goers. Public health experts are concerned that the presence of crowds at these celebrations could facilitate the spread of the disease should an outbreak occur.

Following the meeting on Thursday, the Shwe Set Taw Pagoda Festival, one of Myanmar’s most high-profile pagoda festivals—which had already been underway for a week—was shut down by local authorities.

“We have canceled Shwe Set Taw Pagoda Festival [in Min Bu, Magwe region] starting from Friday, as the Union government instructed us after the Naypyitaw meeting to reduce public and religious gatherings, except funerals,” said Dr. Aung Moe Nyo, the chief minister of Magwe Region.

The government’s decision to ban mass gatherings follows questions since early this month over its slow response to the global outbreak. State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was touring the country holding public meetings until a day before the WHO’s global pandemic announcement on Thursday.

Rumors and panic buying

When the news about the emergency meeting in Naypyitaw and the ban on gatherings went viral on Facebook— Myanmar’s most popular social media platform—on Thursday evening, a frenzy of buying hit supermarkets in Yangon and Mandalay.

Shoppers stock up on goods at a local supermarket in Yangon on Thursday evening. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

People queued at many supermarkets and local grocery stores to buy food and basic items. Shelves were empty and posts reporting panic-buying spread rapidly on Facebook. Many people said they wanted to squirrel away necessities in case the situation deteriorated.

To make matters worse, a rumor spread that a patient had tested positive for COVID-19 at Yangon General Hospital. The hospital immediately issued a response, stating that the rumor was false.

People buy rice at a local rice shop in Mandalay on Friday. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

Daw Khin Khin Gyi, the deputy director of the Central Epidemiology Unit at the Disease Control Division under the Health Ministry’s Department of Public Health, said the number of people being tested for coronavirus was rising daily across the country, both because health departments are speeding up their checks, and more people are voluntarily showing up to be screened.

“As we have more and more screenings, we can ensure more negative results, so it is good,” she added.

According to the ministry, 104 people had been tested as “patients under investigation” in Myanmar as of Thursday; lab tests showed 97 of these were negative for the coronavirus, while the rest of the results were pending.

The Health and Sports Ministry said on Feb. 28 that anyone who falls sick with the virus must report to the authorities; failure to do so carries a punishment of up to a month in prison or a fine of 30,000 kyats (US$21), as it labeled the coronavirus an “epidemic or notifiable disease” under the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law.

Last week, the Myanmar military announced that it would postpone until further notice events celebrating the 75th Armed Forces Day, which falls on March 27 and commemorates Myanmar’s armed struggle against the Japanese fascists in 1945.

Zarni Mann contributed to this report. 

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