As COVID-19 Arrives in Myanmar, Individual Responsibility, Competent Leadership Needed

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 31 March 2020

The moment we had been dreading arrived in Myanmar last week, as the country inevitably joined the global league of countries affected by the deadly COVID-19 pandemic, reporting its first confirmed coronavirus cases. As of Tuesday, the disease had infected more than 690,000 people and killed 33,257 in 204 countries worldwide.

The Southeast Asian country saw its first virus-related death on Tuesday morning. Meanwhile, the number of confirmed infections has been rising steadily since the first cases were reported last week. As of Monday night, the country had detected 14 cases, and more are likely to be reported soon.

Myanmar is now in the grip of uncertainty. Given the state of the country’s long-crippled healthcare system, it’s no wonder people are so scared. They are alarmed, wondering aloud how the country will be able to cope with a disease that is strong enough to drive some European hospitals, with the world’s best healthcare standards, to the breaking point. The country’s struggling economy has taken another hit, as businesses have been brought nearly to a standstill by a lack of raw materials. Workers who were already barely eking out a living now face the additional strain of worrying about whether their factories will be forced to close by a lockdown. Fingers are crossed—but no one knows what will happen next.

However, one thing is certain: Myanmar is facing its most serious public health crisis in decades. The question is, how can we overcome this?

Despite a recent increase in spending on health—it accounted for more than 4.5 percent of the government budget in FY2018-19—the country has experienced decades of underinvestment in public health. Insufficient doctors and beds are a common problem in hospitals across the country. In a time when even hospital wards in developed countries are being overwhelmed by COVID-19 patients, it’s a fact that Myanmar will suffer more.

To relieve the suffering, the most effective and affordable approach for the country right now is to encourage the public to strictly follow guidelines issued by the Health Ministry. Basic requirements like staying at home and forgoing unnecessary trips outside could save lives. Frequent handwashing could keep the virus at bay from you and your family. Those who don’t have the luxury of staying at home can make a contribution in this time of health crisis by practicing social distancing as much as they can.

Military personnel disinfect the compound of the Maha Gandhayon Monastery, one of Myanmar’s international tourist attractions, in Mandalay on March 30, 2020. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

While individuals are already playing important roles in this national cause—with medical professionals at the forefront—the government shouldn’t fail to support them. It’s true that the Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) has taken the issue very seriously from the outset. Until January, nasal and throat swabs from suspected cases were flown to labs in neighboring countries, as Myanmar didn’t have a facility equipped to conduct the required tests. Now the National Health Laboratory in Yangon can issue the results within hours. The MOHS makes them public on a daily basis—although announcing them late at night is another issue!—and is updating people on its activities.

However, something (or someone) has been missing as Myanmar deals with this national health crisis: the President.

U Win Myint, the country’s head of state, was last spotted in public on March 8—nearly two weeks before the country reported its first positive case. Unlike his counterparts in other countries, so far he hasn’t uttered a word to the public on how his government is doing in the fight against the deadly virus. People on Myanmar’s most popular social media platform, Facebook, have started jokingly referring to him as the “Invisible President”, while another said that “he is following the MOHS’ ‘staying at home’ guideline as a role model for the citizens.” (The country’s de facto leader, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, took the initiative by demonstrating proper handwashing technique and later consoled the public, urging against panic after the first positive cases were reported.)

Apart from the missing President, some mismanagement and a lack of departmental coordination appears to be evident.

Right after the positive cases were reported last week, some doctors and nurses at government hospitals, including some in Yangon, chorused that their hospitals didn’t have enough personal protective equipment (PPE) and surgical masks, calling for donations. People under quarantine at a Yangon infectious disease hospital complained of an occasional lack of running water at the facility. To alleviate the problem, the MOHS distributed the quarantined individuals to hospitals across the country—three days after the first positive cases were reported—and hastily placed an order for 100,000 more PPE sets from a Chinese-owned factory in the country.

Furthermore, some departments’ lax enforcement of the MOHS’ guidelines, especially on avoiding mass gatherings and implementing home quarantines for those who have recently returned from overseas, is worrisome. Despite the Health Ministry’s discouragement of gatherings, some religious and social events have continued to draw crowds, putting every participant at high risk of infection. In a time of pandemic, regional governments must enforce without exception a strict ban on all gatherings, even religious ones. The same strictness should be applied to quarantining those who have just returned from overseas, as they could bring in imported cases.

A video posted online recently shows a lone young nurse challenging a migrant worker who refuses to stay in home quarantine after recently returning from a neighboring country. Given that one of Myanmar’s positive cases is a migrant worker who just returned from Thailand, the seriousness of enforcing quarantine for anyone who has just returned home is unquestionable, and local authorities should show no leniency toward anyone who defies it.

At the end of the day, history will judge how the government responds to this crisis. Recall the way the previous military regime handled the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which killed more than 84,000 people (official figure) in Myanmar’s Irrawaddy Delta in 2008. It should be noted that disasters and health crises can make or break a government.

For the time being, with no vaccine for COVID-19 in sight, everyone’s participation counts and will make a difference in this life-and-death situation.  Meanwhile, in Yangon this past weekend, the once traffic-choked roads became a driver’s delight, as there were fewer cars—a sign that people were sticking to their homes. Food delivery boys pedaling along on their bikes with large containers strapped to their backs were a common sight. Like all the previous pandemics that humanity has faced, COVID-19 will subside eventually. When the time comes, we can look back and share our experiences over glasses of whisky in a newly crowded bar. For now, let’s stay calm and stay safe—for all our sakes!

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