Burma

Myanmar Regime Offers no Help as Kalaymyo Struggles With COVID-19 Outbreak 

By The Irrawaddy 29 June 2021

Funerals have become a common sight in Kalaymyo, Sagaing Region as the town grapples with a severe COVID-19 outbreak, while also mounting armed resistance against the military regime. 

Residents are in a state of panic as every day brings new fatalities. 

“People have died every day this month. A few days ago, over 20 people died in a single day. And most of them died of COVID-19. It has been more than a month since the COVID-19 outbreak started here in Kalaymyo,” said local resident Ko Kyaw. 

Kalaymyo, also known as Kale or Kalay, has experienced the highest death toll and the largest number of new infections since Myanmar was hit by the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. As of June 26, over 100 Kale residents had died of COVID-19 since the first cases were reported in May.

The town in northwest Myanmar was also one of the first to take up arms against the military regime following the junta’s Feb. 1 coup. Some 40 residents have died in clashes between local resistance fighters and junta forces, according to locals, and sporadic clashes between people’s defense forces and regime soldiers continue to take place near the town. 

Coronavirus cases have spun out of control because the township hospital is overstretched and ill-equipped to deal with the outbreak, as well as suffering from a shortage of oxygen, volunteers and donors. The dusk-to-dawn curfew imposed by the junta has also had an impact, as patients are unable to go to hospital during the curfew. 

Tar Han ward, where most residents are ethnic Chin, in the west of Kalaymyo, has been hit hardest by the COVID-19 outbreak. Some 50 percent of the households in Tar Han are infected with the virus, said Kalaymyo resident U Ko Ko Maung.

“There were many bodies at the Chin cemeteries yesterday. Tar Han is experiencing the worst situation in Kale,” he said.  

Over half of Kalaymyo’s 300,000-plus residents are ethnic Chin or from other minorities, with Bamar people making up the rest of the population.

Oxygen Shortages 

The high number of COVID-19 deaths in Kale is due to shortages of oxygen. Some patients died on June 27 after the town ran out of medical oxygen.  

Oxygen cylinders ordered from other towns did not arrive in time, as some of the buses transporting them broke down on the way and others were stranded due to fighting between local resistance fighters and junta troops on the Kalay-Gangaw road. 

“While some deaths can be confirmed as being caused by COVID-19, many people in rural areas died before they were tested for COVID-19. Four to five people die every day and the lack of oxygen is a factor,” said a resident. 

However, oxygen production machinery has recently arrived at Kalaymyo Hospital and work is under way to set up an oxygen production plant with funds contributed by donors under the National League for Democracy (NLD) government, said locals. 

“Some 200 million kyats has been donated under the people’s government to set up an oxygen plant. Don’t think the military has funded it. They give nothing,” said Ko Kyaw.

Self-treatment at Home 

With the public hospital and COVID-19 centers overstretched and COVID-19 patients charged 40,000 kyats per head to receive treatment, patients are choosing to treat themselves at home, said Kale resident U Maung Maung. 

“One of my relatives was infected with the virus. He didn’t go to the hospital. Instead, he stays at his home. His family members also do not go out and volunteers buy medicine and food for them,” said U Maung Maung. 

“People stay at home because they think it is safer to do so. People who can afford it have bought oxygen and keep it at their homes. And philanthropic organizations buy oxygen for those who can’t afford it,” he added. 

Elderly people and those with other underlying health problems have died while treating themselves at home. In rural parts of Kale, people are going into voluntary quarantine, with villagers posting notices in front of their houses when a family member is infected. 

Regime Provides no Assistance 

Although there has been no assistance from the capital Naypyitaw, the regime is putting pressure on health officials to control the outbreak.

“Naypyitaw wants to see the death rate decline in Kale. But they don’t provide anything to prevent people from dying. They have not provided any medicine or anything else so far,” said a source close to Kale health workers.

Under the NLD government, there were sufficient medicines and medical devices at COVID-19 health facilities, as well as a lot of donors and volunteers and assistance from Naypyitaw, said volunteers from Kale. 

“I served as a volunteer before the coup. We could control the virus then. All the people took part in prevention. But there are no volunteers at all now. No one wants to volunteer. I also do not volunteer. No one is volunteering to help COVID-19 patients after five volunteers were infected. And there are fewer doctors and nurses working,” said a former volunteer. 

“Under the people’s government, patients were not asked a kyat [to receive treatment]. There were many donors providing free meals and medicine. The [NLD] government also provided free medicines. You didn’t need to spend a kyat from your own pocket. It was a totally free 20-day treatment,” he added.  

Patients are not going to hospital now unless it is an emergency as they have to pay to receive care at the COVID-19 center opened at the hospital and the treatment is not reliable. People who can afford it are choosing to receive treatment at private hospitals and clinics. 

Curfew  

Another factor contributing to COVID-19 deaths in Kale is the dusk-to-dawn curfew which effectively bars patients needing emergency care from being taken to hospital during the night hours.  

A number of COVID-19 patients have died as they could not reach the hospital at night despite needing emergency healthcare. In the last week, a couple who were outside during curfew hours were shot by junta troops and one of them died. 

“Junta troops fire on sight without making inquiries first. So no one dares to go outside at night,” said U Maung Maung. 

Coup and COVID-19 Combination

Many lives in Kale are at risk because of the combined impact of the coup and the coronavirus pandemic. 

Kalay residents feel unsafe because of both the armed clashes and the public health crisis. Many live in constant fear and are going through sleepless nights. 

“Many of my relatives, friends and acquaintances have died during this period. Some have died from COVID-19 and some have died of torture in military custody. I don’t know what will happen to me tomorrow. I feel unsafe. I can only pray that I survive,” said Ko Kyaw. 

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