Commentary

Generosity Comes Naturally to Myanmar People, but Don’t Take It for Granted

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 7 May 2020

Myanmar is a land of contradictions. Its health care system is among the worst in the world. The same goes for education. But one thing it doesn’t lack is generosity. Despite its Least Developed Country (LDC) status, it is the second-most-generous country in the world—after the United States—according to CAF’s World Giving Index for 2019, which measured “giving trends” over the previous decade. Previously, it had been awarded the No. 1 spot for four consecutive years, and made the top 10 in 2018, for its people’s generosity. Now, even as the coronavirus ravages the country’s economy and their daily lives, Myanmar people remain true to their nature, giving generous support to the country’s fight against the disease.

More than a month after Myanmar detected its first COVID-19 patient, the country has 162 cases with six deaths so far. The Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) said on Sunday the disease was under control to some extent, claiming that a decline in new cases was due to the government’s testing, contact tracing and quarantining efforts, as well as public cooperation with social distancing rules, bans on mass gatherings and orders to stay at home.

Yes, it is true that the government’s efforts and public participation have together curbed the spread of the virus so far. However, we shouldn’t ignore the fact that donations and assistance from well-wishers from every walk of life across the country have made the government’s efforts at disease control, prevention and treatment smoother. These donors have played a major role in Myanmar’s fight against COVID-19.

It all started with a request from the country’s State Counselor, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, during her speech to the public on March 16, in which she urged Myanmar people to contribute what they could, within their means, to the country’s COVID-19 prevention, control and treatment fund. Following the request, the government was showered with cash donations. According to MOHS data, by April 10—less than a month after her speech—the COVID-19 committee led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi had received more than 891 million kyats (about US$640,000), mostly from Myanmar citizens, both at home and abroad. They donated, either individually or institutionally, contributions ranging from US$50 (about 70,000 kyats) to 30 million and even 100 million kyats. And the donations—which have taken the form of cash, food, medical supplies and personal protective gear for health workers—continue to pour in, prompting a grateful response from Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader.

“I dare say that no other country in the world would receive that kind of massive [popular] support,” she said during a recent teleconference with COVID-19 patients.

Her words reflect the tendency of the Myanmar public—from the country’s well-to-do to ordinary people—to respond humanely and with generosity in times of national crisis. It is encouraging to see people step up and do their part when the whole nation is in need.

When he learned that Yangon was in urgent need of quarantine centers for those returning from overseas in late March, banker U Zaw Zaw of the Ayeyarwady Foundation not only opened the doors of his bank’s training centers to self-isolating returnees, but also provided them with free meals from his Novotel Yangon Max. He also provided accommodation and transportation for health workers at one of the hospitals in the city that is treating COVID-19 patients. The foundation said it had contributed US$1 million as of late April in disease-related donations, including medical supplies.

KBZ Bank airlifted donations of medical equipment and hospital supplies for the prevention and treatment of COVID-19 from Guangzhou, China to Yangon International Airport on April 3. / KBZ Bank

KBZ Bank, Myanmar’s biggest lender, also rushed to purchase tens of thousands of pieces of personal protective equipment (PPE) from China in late March, when health workers were voicing concern at the lack of such gear in Myanmar just as the country was reporting its first COVID-19 cases. To the relief of doctors and nurses, the bank airlifted the PPE from Guangzhou on a charted plane in early April. As of late last month, the bank said it had made donations worth more than 3 billion kyats to Myanmar’s fight against COVID-19.

Similarly, were it not for a new Swiss-made COVID-19 testing machine donated by Myanmar’s largest pharmaceutical distribution firm, AA Medical Products Ltd, to the MOHS, the government’s testing capacity would have been limited to around 80 tests per day. The Cobas 6800 medical analyzer will enable lab technicians to run more than 1,400 per day.

But make no mistake—it’s not only the rich who are contributing to the struggle against COVID-19. When the government announced last month that it would provide every household in the country with 150 units of free electricity for domestic use per month to encourage people to stay at home, the public response was heartening. Many citizens donated the amount they would have saved on electricity—about US$8—to the government to help fund its fight against the virus. In shantytowns on the outskirts of Yangon, young volunteers threaded narrow alleys to distribute food and masks to the poor.

It’s crystal clear that donations made out of the people’s generosity, along with some assistance from other countries, have so far been the backbone of the government’s response to the disease. We should remember that the MOHS was allocated just over 4.5 percent of the government budget in fiscal year 2018-19. A supplementary budget allocation and foreign loans to finance the country’s COVID-19 response still require approval from Parliament, which resumes on May 18.

Exactly 12 years ago this month, when Cyclone Nargis devastated the country’s Irrawaddy Delta region and killed more than 140,000 people, Myanmar people showed great generosity by caring for each other in the wake of the disaster. Now they are demonstrating that same spirit once again. The main difference between Myanmar then and now is its government. In 2008, the then military government turned a blind eye to those in need. To the world’s dismay, it even punished those who tried to lend a helping hand. This time, the government has taken the initiative and led the response. Well aware of the popular support she enjoys, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi openly called for assistance from the people, because tackling a massive national health crisis like this one is a Herculean task for the struggling Myanmar government. Motivated by a strong sense of community and one of Myanmar’s signature traditions—helping each other—the people heartily joined in.

However, with the COVID-19 struggle unlikely to be over soon, the people’s generosity can’t be taken for granted. With more migrants due to return from Thailand imminently, along with citizens currently stranded in other countries that have been hit hard by COVID-19, and with many factories scheduled to reopen this month, a major challenge looms for Myanmar. So, it is important to keep up the prevention and control measures against the disease and expand testing, while managing the donations to ensure they are used strategically and transparently. Plans should be made for when the first wave of donations dries up, because Myanmar people may be among the most generous in the world, but their resources are limited. In the end, it is a government’s responsibility to take care of its people, whatever the situation.

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