The Myanmar Govt Has Been Spared a Real Test on Coronavirus—but No One’s Luck Lasts Forever

By Aung Zaw 16 March 2020

The phrase “perfect storm” has been used to describe the various challenges the COVID-19 pandemic is placing on countries around the world, and their governments. World leaders including Chinese President Xi Jinping and US President Donald Trump have scrambled to counter the threat of COVID-19 in the face of criticism at home and abroad. In Europe, the governments of Italy, Spain and France have shut their national borders, ordered restaurants, bars and schools shut, and banned mass public gatherings.

Trump declared a national emergency but his action has been criticized as belated, and the president has struggled to show that he is in charge. A few weeks ago he said, “This is flu,” adding, “A lot of people think that it goes away in April with the heat.”

In Myanmar, too, leaders have been slow to wake up to the need to counter this emergency, not only the health crisis, but also the impacts on the economy. However, so far there have still been no confirmed cases in Myanmar, which shares a border of over 2,000 kilometers with China, the country in which the outbreak originated. Not yet. But some say it is only a matter of time.

Last week, Myanmar’s de facto leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi visited Lashio, in northeast Myanmar, the region that shares a border with China, to meet large crowds of supporters. Since January she has traveled extensively to various parts of the country in her capacity as chairperson of the Central Committee to Implement the Development of Border Areas and Ethnic Nationalities, but her political opponents say these trips are campaign events, as the country will hold a general election in November. Such state-sponsored trips are not cheap.

Last week, health workers were seen scanning the body temperatures of attendees at a public meeting held by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay Region. However, since February, health workers and senior physicians have been busy testing suspected patients and taking care of students and workers coming back from China.

Every day the Myanmar public relies on rumors and half-baked social media reports for information, as the government has been slow to keep the public informed and raise awareness. While there are capable officials at the Ministry of Health and Sports (MOHS) who have worked hard to inform the public of the dangers, there has been a lack of leadership at the highest level of government.

Some residents of crowded downtown Yangon have taken to wearing masks as a preventive measure against the deadly coronavirus. / Htet Wai / The Irrawaddy

The State Counselor’s public rallies have attracted criticism as a possible health hazard. Two weeks ago, the Myanmar military announced it would postpone its annual Armed Forces Day parade, which is normally held on March 27.

In the US, Trump has been accused of making things up or listening to non-experts to offer false assurances to the public. Similarly, in Myanmar it is unclear whether top leaders including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi (or President U Win Myint) have sought the advice of experts in order to understand the gravity of the pandemic.

Does anyone dare to report to her and her top leaders about the reality on the ground, about the impacts and what’s happening worldwide? (It seems the military has taken the lead by postponing its cherished Armed Forces Day parade, an event at which the generals enjoy boasting of their role as guardians of the nation and criticizing colonialists. This year the guardians will take a break, and those bastards the colonialists will be spared a tongue-lashing.)

On Friday last week, after a meeting with representatives of ethnic nationalities in Naypyitaw, and a day after the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a global pandemic, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the issue for the first time in months, saying her government would hold a meeting on the virus. Her planned visits to other areas of the country have reportedly been canceled.

No public gatherings, but …

In late February, MOHS dutifully warned the public that Myanmar remains at risk for an outbreak of coronavirus and advised people to avoid mass gatherings.

Myanmar health officials have tested 78 people for coronavirus since January but none has tested positive, according to MOHS. Seven suspected patients are still awaiting their test results. Now, more measures are being announced to monitor, ban or quarantine visitors and Myanmar citizens coming back from affected countries. As of today, cinemas have been shut down and visa bans imposed on visitors from the worst-affected countries including China, Italy, Iran, South Korea, Spain, France and Germany. Myanmar travelers returning from these countries will be monitored.

In early March, Myanmar refused entry to a tourist cruise ship in the country’s commercial capital out of fear of the coronavirus epidemic, which has already affected parts of Southeast Asia. Senior officials at MOHS made the decision.

In fact, Myanmar health officials are sufficiently worried that the ministry issued a notice in February recommending that public gatherings be halted or suspended.

“It is best to halt public gatherings. If a gathering is unavoidable, the number of attendees should be reduced as much as possible. We’ve already sent letters of recommendation and notices on this to all government institutions,” said Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, the Public Health Department’s deputy director of contagious disease prevention and eradication. But in spite of her warning, public gatherings have been held, showing a lack of leadership and social responsibility.

Myanmar’s upcoming water festival has been canceled, as it has been in Thailand. But still, many pre-water festival gatherings and water splashing parties were held in Myanmar as colleges and universities closed down for the summer holidays.

Several ethnic armed groups are stationed on the border with China and do border trade with the country. It seems they have also taken some measures to control the virus. For instance, the Wa and Kokang authorities have shut down casinos and nightclubs that are usually flooded with Chinese visitors.

Military MPs wear face masks in the Union Parliament on March 4. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

What is worrying is that Myanmar as a country would be ill-equipped to deal with an outbreak, should one occur. Moreover, the public doesn’t trust the healthcare system in Myanmar; people also worry that any intervention from government ministries will be weak and slow. It must be noted, however, that with limited resources, Myanmar’s doctors and health workers have been doing their best to raise the alarm and inform the public—even from their personal Facebook pages. Thanks to their efforts, people living in the major cities have learned about the virus and it is safe to assume that many are now well informed about how to protect themselves.

In Parliament, MPs have been distracted by the voting on proposals to amend the Constitution, which was drafted in favor of the military. Mask-wearing military MPs, who occupy 25 percent of the seats in Parliament, fiercely and unanimously oppose the amendments.

The military-appointed lawmakers created a splash—and some laughter—when they arrived in Parliament en masse wearing face masks, providing much fodder for cartoonists and social media satirists.

“We will be in serious trouble if we have dozens of patients… I don’t think we have enough capacity to handle this kind of situation,” said a businessman in his early 50s. He asked to remain anonymous for fear of a backlash from the government and supporters of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi.

“It is just sheer luck we don’t have the virus yet,” said U Ye Min Oo, Naypyitaw’s deputy mayor, who is in his 40s.

Last month, U Zaw Htay, a government spokesman, said Myanmar does not have the capacity to test for the coronavirus. Any samples would will need to be sent to Thailand or Hong Kong, which could take up to a week. Since then, however, Singapore, USAID and some foundations have donated testing kits and related supplies to Myanmar.

Learn from Taiwan and Singapore? 

Many in the business community are upset and say Myanmar should learn a lesson from Singapore and Taiwan, where aggressive measures have been applied to counter the virus and identify infected people.

When the outbreak emerged in January, some experts predicted that Taiwan, given its relative proximity to the virus’s epicenter in Wuhan, Hubei province, would have the highest number of cases outside of mainland China. In fact, COVID-19 has largely spared the island.

Taiwan has kept its number of confirmed cases below 50. Some international health experts attribute this to Taiwan’s quick preparation and early intervention. The same goes for Singapore.

One of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s supporters undergoes a temperature scan before entering the venue of her public meeting in Pyin Oo Lwin on March 10. / Zaw Zaw / The Irrawaddy

In Singapore, the government of the city state advised the public at an early stage that anyone with even mild symptoms should see a doctor and refrain from going to school or work, and offered free testing. The government is footing the hospital bills for Singaporean residents who have suspected or confirmed cases.

Collateral damage 

This outbreak is already having an effect on the global economy, and Myanmar has not been spared. Analysts have warned that the impacts could be worse than those of the 2008 financial crisis.

In Myanmar, the COVID-19 outbreak has worsened an already sluggish economy, and experts have warned that the country could be in for a full-blown economic crisis.

The Irrawaddy’s correspondent Nan Lwin wrote, “Since late January, the outbreak has continued to hit Myanmar’s tourism, border trade and export sectors, causing massive losses for producers, exporters and workers. Myanmar has already lost several hundred million dollars as business slows in China, the country’s largest trading partner.”

China is one of Myanmar’s largest investors and trading partners and has committed to several Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects in the county. Xi visited Myanmar in January. By the time he returned to China, Wuhan was already experiencing a full-blown outbreak.

According to the Ministry of Commerce, Myanmar typically earned $10 million (about 14 billion kyats) a day from border trade with China, but daily earnings have plummeted to $1 million since the crossings were closed.

Indeed, as China battles the coronavirus epidemic it remains to be seen how its mega projects in Myanmar will be impacted, and whether the crisis will be fatal to China’s planned economic corridor and investment in the country.

Factories shut down 

Several factories have closed down due to a lack of raw materials from China. Moreover, closures of garment factories have led to mass layoffs, affecting more than 7,000 workers, according to the Confederation of Trade Unions in Myanmar (CTUM).

As Myanmar businesses call for government support to deal with the impacts of coronavirus, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said at the public meeting in Pyin Oo Lwin on Tuesday last week that the government planned in advance to cushion the blow from the negative repercussions of the outbreak. However, she did not say how the government would prevent an economic crisis.

“The sharp drop in border trade has impacted the conditions of our economy. We can’t escape this,” she said at the meeting in Pyin Oo Lwin. “We have launched a plan to tackle not only health issues but also economic issues.”

The State Counselor said the government formed a committee under the Ministry for International Cooperation when the coronavirus outbreak began. But what’s needed, according to critics, are top level meetings to discuss the issue, delegate tasks to the ministries and departments, and coordinate their work.

“Every day we have been very vigilant about the ongoing situation—the challenges of health, as well as the economic and social challenges. We have kept ourselves alert 24 hours [a day] and plan to overcome the challenges with our expertise, with the abilities of our people,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi said. “Efforts are being made to secure better health and economic benefits for the people, as much as we can.”

She added, “Educational awareness measures are being carried out in regard to the COVID-19. People are instructed to follow ‘dos’ and ‘don’ts’. People should understand and abide by the guidelines so as to benefit from them. I do want all citizens to rely on themselves instead of relying on the state. You should do your best and you will improve yourself. I do want you to have confidence that our nation can be developed.”

Well, self-reliance is certain—it is the Myanmar way.

Insufficient measures 

Shortly after the World Health Organization defined the COVID-19 outbreak as a pandemic on March 12, the Central Bank of Myanmar announced a 0.5 percentage point cut in interest rates. The business community in Myanmar welcomed the move but many said it was too little too late, and more needed to be done.

A businessman in Yangon said a 2-percentage-point cut was needed, and that the government should introduce financial packages as well as tax cuts. Some went even further, calling for a tax-free amnesty period and an interest-free period. Even before COVID-19, the economy was sluggish—it has been so since the government took power—but many are now speaking up.

“We have to look at those sectors that have been hit the hardest [by the pandemic] and inject cash and introduce a rescue plan,” the businessman said.

Using a medical analogy to refer to the economy, he said, “The patient has cancer and is bed-ridden. Prescribing paracetamol isn’t enough.” According to the directive, the minimum bank deposit rate was lowered to 7.5 percent from 8 percent, while the maximum lending rate was lowered to 12.5 percent for collateralized loans and 15.5 percent for non-collateralized loans, from 13 percent and 16 percent, respectively.

Myanmar survived Western sanctions in decades past, the optimists point out, adding that the country will overcome this new challenge. But many in the business sector disagree. The economy was in deep trouble even before the COVID-19 pandemic, they say. Many fingers are being pointed at governments both past and present over their perceived inaction.

One important problem is that Myanmar lacks data, which makes it hard for government leaders to make informed decisions.

“They are too cautious… It’s time we had the ability to constantly analyze situations,” said a banker with deep knowledge of financial markets.

Supernatural formulas and the ‘Power of Pa-htan

Daw Wut Ye, 32, an employee of a four-star hotel in downtown Yangon, said the number of visitors to her hotel had dropped. Tour operators say the travel sector has been hard hit by the virus, with both inbound and outbound tourism numbers low. The UMFCCI said tourist arrivals by plane have declined 53 percent since late January. The Myanmar Tourism Federation also said that the outbreak is expected to cut tourism revenue by as much as 50 percent.

She said she was following news of the outbreak of COVID-19 in China and elsewhere—and also the reports of workers being laid off. A migrant from central Myanmar, she has her family to take care of.

Daw Wut Ye knows she is now at risk of losing her job; the hotel manager is slowly laying off staff, keeping the senior ones.

She said she is not afraid of catching COVID-19—though she interacts with Chinese and Europeans, among other customers, at the hotel—but she can’t afford to lose her job.

“I keep myself healthy, take care of myself and my family,” she said with confidence. She added that many Chinese have bad karma, and this is why they have the virus. “What about Italians, Spanish and French?” She did not say anything, but smiled. After a long pause, she said, “Chinese are ill-mannered—I see it [at the hotel].”

As a Buddhist, she prays every day and practices Pa-htan(Dhamma chanting) every morning—a common practice in Myanmar. She believes chanting protects her from the virus.

“Every day, I eat onion, vegetables and beans,” she said, expressing confidence that these ingredients can protect her from the virus.

She is not alone. Many in Myanmar believe drinking ginger tea, gurgling warm salty water or staying in the heat can kill the virus and save lives. (In neighboring Thailand, meanwhile, the number of cases has slowly risen to 114.) According to the conventional wisdom in Myanmar, people in the country have strong antibodies as they live with mosquitoes, parasites and mountains of rubbish—they assume they are immune.

Social media is a real problem in this regard and, if one wants to remain healthy, it is better to stay away from Facebook, at least for now. (If you can give up Facebook forever, even better!)

One social media use shared a remedy they claimed offered protection from the virus. “You ought to chew six seeds of pepper every day and munch six betel nut leaves every day.” A taxi driver in his 50s said he believed the advice was sound. On the other hand, he chews betel nut everyday, anyway.

The illustration suggests that with the ruling National League for Democracy, the military and its proxies busy debating charter amendments, Myanmar is vulnerable to COVID-19.

Another social media user shared a report that keeping texts and alleged drawings of Ledi Sayadaw, a renowned and influential Theravada Buddhist monk who passed away in 1923, could ward off the Wuhan virus among other misfortunes. “Keep his drawings at home or in the office to ward off Wuhan virus with the power of the mind!” one shared.

In times of crisis the public looks to the government for leadership and direction. Criticism of the current government is mounting, though the virus itself has not landed or been discovered here yet.

The public will make a judgment on how their leaders perform and deal with the current situation, whether it’s Trump or Xi or Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. The COVID-19 pandemic will be a test to see how they operate in a crisis. Can they handle it or not?

Myanmar is obviously unprepared  for the consequences of the virus and its impacts on the economy. How Myanmar copes with this unpreparedness, given its limited resources, remains to be seen. Myanmar has survived many crises, including a natural disaster in 2008 when Cyclone Nargis slammed through southern Myanmar. Some 140,000 lives were lost and 800,000 people were displaced. But this pandemic is different from that sort of natural disaster.

A cabalistic diagram of Ledi Sayadaw, widely believed to prevent pandemics.

Some longtime observers of the country say Myanmar survived that and other crises because its people are cheerful and don’t lack for a sense of humor and sarcasm.

It’s true they make jokes about those in power, including repressive and corrupt dictators, and survived years in isolation in notorious prisons.

This time, cartoonists are again having a field day, apparently mocking the potentially deadly COVID-19. One cartoon depicted the Wuhan virus, after approaching Myanmar, as stopping upon seeing an impoverished country with a deepening armed conflict and a chaotic and divided society. The virus pauses and says, “Well, it’s not time to go there.”

Still, Myanmar has ridden its luck and survived. Which begs the question: Is it because of luck, or possibly chanting Pa-htan? Either way, no one’s luck lasts forever.

As this story went live, Myanmar’s State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi addressed the nation on the government’s preparations to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

You may also like these stories:

Myanmar Maid Quarantined in Yangon After Boss in Singapore Infected With Coronavirus

Myanmar Preschools Braced for Coronavirus Closures

Myanmar Migrants in Thailand Discouraged From New Year Homecoming Amid Covid-19 Concerns