Impoverished Myanmar Takes on an Invisible Enemy

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 9 April 2020

The world is under attack. Myanmar is no exception, but the situation here could still be described as, “So far, so lucky.”

The enemy that all of us on this planet are facing is an invisible but deadly one: the coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19. No one is safe—it is causing anguish in every country, and no government has yet come up with a perfect strategy or policy for how to tackle this virus, which is—as one of the names by which it is known suggests—truly novel.

In Myanmar, the coronavirus has killed three people so far and 20 COVID-19 patients are being treated. It has sickened more than 1.4 million people in 177 countries around the world and taken over 80,000 lives, with Italy, Spain and the US the worst affected in terms of fatalities, since the first case was detected in Wuhan, China, last December.

No one knows what tomorrow will bring when it comes to this virus, which has challenged both health experts and world leaders.

On Wednesday, the confirmation of two more deaths from COVID-19 in Myanmar added to the sense of alarm among the public.

State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi announced the third death at the end of a teleconference she held with a trio of experts—a doctor, a leading volunteer and an administrative officer from Magwe Region in central Myanmar—and which was broadcast live to the public.

“Losing one person is a loss for everyone in our country,” she continued. “We feel sorry, but having sorrow alone is not enough. Please take the loss as a warning.”

Obviously, the virus does not discriminate. Prince Charles, the heir to the British throne, tested positive, and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is being treated in intensive care for COVID-19, but in recent days the number of deaths has risen above a thousand a day, claiming large numbers of Americans, Spaniards and Italians.

In tackling this global pandemic—one of the worst since the 1918 Spanish flu that killed about 50 million people—the world has seemed at times to be leaderless, with politicians in every country, both developed and developing, randomly shooting back at this invisible enemy. Most are still struggling even just to suppress the spread of the virus.

All governments, including those in countries with good governance, strong public health care systems and abundant resources, are reacting ad hoc. That is understandable, as this virus is an unknown quantity.

A country’s wealth doesn’t seem to affect the virus’ ability to penetrate its society. Look how terribly the people of the US and other rich countries in Europe, including Britain, are suffering.

Again, our impoverished Myanmar is still lucky—doubly so, given that it shares a 2,220-kilometer-long border with China, the country in which the virus first emerged.

That geographical fact led some observers to misread Myanmar’s situation (again, so far). In mid-March, when the country had yet to report any COVID-19 patients, some Myanmar watchers decided the country must have had undetected patients due to the shared frontier. They assumed the virus must have penetrated Myanmar from across the border.

In fact, that has not been the case. Of the 23 cases recorded so far, 15 were imported from France, the US, the UK, Australia, Singapore, Switzerland, South Korea and Thailand. The other eight were locally transmitted.

Among the possible reasons is that Hubei Province, where Wuhan is located, does not border Myanmar and Myanmar doesn’t really have any direct business connections with Wuhan, unlike some European countries. In addition, Myanmar’s government suspended all flights between Yangon and China in early February. All flights from Wuhan were canceled even prior to that.

China’s Yunnan Province, which borders Myanmar, has a low infection rate. On March 15, the province had just 174 cases and two deaths, while Hubei had 67,796 cases and a death toll of 3,085, according to the World Health Organization.

Many people, including the aforementioned Myanmar watchers, simply assumed that many cases would pour in from China, which is seen as the country of origin. But as the outbreak in New York shows, it doesn’t always work that way.

Emergency workers take the body of a COVID-19 patient for cremation on Wednesday in Pyay. /Kaung Myant Min /The Irrawaddy

In Myanmar, many people, including officials, were concerned that an outbreak might emerge after about 50,000 migrant workers returned from Thailand recently.

In her teleconference on Wednesday, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said the coming weeks will be critical, as most returnees from Thailand finish their 14 days of quarantine.

No one can discount the potential for a major outbreak in our country, though the number of confirmed cases is still low. As a poor country, Myanmar will face huge difficulties if it suffers an outbreak on the scale of New York or those that have occurred in some other countries.

One good thing is that the government has kept the public informed about the latest situation regarding the virus; it doesn’t seem to be concerned about controlling the flow of information and hiding “bad news” that is essential for the public.

The coronavirus outbreak has even led Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to personally and publicly use social media. On April 1, she, as the State Counselor of the country, started using Facebook, the dominant social media platform in the country, to connect with the public more effectively amid the fight against the coronavirus.

In her recent speeches and videoconferences, which were broadcast on television and on Facebook, she managed to deliver her message as the country’s de facto leader to the public in an informal style.

In her videoconference yesterday, she urged the public to be careful regarding the virus but repeatedly warned that excessive worry will not help the situation. She urged each citizen to participate in the country’s fight against the disease.

“Nobody can tell how long this disease will keep spreading around our globe,” she warned. “You can see that developed and rich countries are struggling in the fight against the virus.”

“Thus, the fight against the virus doesn’t depend on wealth. Ultimately, it depends on our spiritual strength. We will be able to get the disease under control if everybody follows the health guidelines.”

Such a communication channel between government leaders and the public is essential—not only to keep the public informed, but also for hearing the public’s views. This is participatory democracy—something Myanmar has never experienced before.

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