As Myanmar grapples with a deadly third wave of coronavirus, the shortage of medical oxygen has become the biggest killer in the country.
In June, the number of people who died of COVID-19 stood at 117. But in the first two weeks of July, the death toll has already reached 847. Crematoriums in Yangon and elsewhere are suddenly thronged with coffins, with the lack of oxygen the reason for most of the fatalities.
The country’s healthcare system has collapsed amid the political upheaval that followed the junta’s coup in February. Many hospitals that were able to cope with the influx of patients during the country’s first and second waves of the virus before the military takeover are now understaffed and unable to treat people.
Turned away by hospitals, many people have to treat themselves at home, including sourcing their own medical oxygen. This has led to panic buying and an acute shortage of oxygen cylinders.
In response, the military regime has ordered oxygen plants in Yangon and other towns not to refill oxygen cylinders for individuals. On the night of July 13, junta troops fired shots in the air to disperse a crowd queuing for oxygen at a plant in Yangon’s South Dagon Township.
COVID-19 fatalities resulting from the dearth of oxygen have increased significantly, with 89 deaths recorded on July 12, 109 on July 13 and 145 on July 14, according to the junta-controlled Ministry of Health and Sports. But the real figures are believed to be higher.
Meanwhile, the regime’s repressive orders such as the dusk-to-dawn curfew have contributed to COVID-19 fatalities, with people dying unnecessarily through being unable to access oxygen and medical treatment in time. People also face the increased risk of coronavirus infection from being forced to queue for hours at the handful of oxygen plants.