Myanmar & COVID-19

Fears Grow for IDPs in Myanmar’s Rakhine as COVID-19 Outbreak Disrupts Food, Health Services

By Nyein Nyein 31 August 2020

As COVID-19 continues to spread in Rakhine State, the Union government’s statewide stay-at-home order and suspension of some activities by international NGOs (INGOs) there have prompted fears for the survival of ethnic Rakhine and Rohingya who are currently residing in relief camps after fleeing armed clashes and communal violence.

As of Monday morning, Myanmar had reported 882 COVID-19 cases in total, of which nearly half were in the western state of Rakhine, whose capital Sittwe has been hit hard by a surge in domestically transmitted cases.

In an attempt to curb the spread of the virus, the government has imposed a partial lockdown on the whole state since last week, urging its more than 3 million residents to stay home and only allowing essential businesses to open.

Rakhine State is also home to nearly 200,000 ethnic Rakhine internally displaced persons (IDPs) who have fled intensified fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army since 2018, according to the Rakhine Ethnic Congress, a local NGO helping the IDPs. Of those, 62,000 are taking shelter at some 150 IDP camps while the rest remain in Sittwe, Ponnakyun, Kyauktaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Buthidaung, Rathedaung, Maungdaw and Ann townships, but with their livelihoods disrupted and requiring support to survive.

Furthermore, more than 100,000 Rohingya IDPs who were displaced by communal conflicts in 2012 are still sheltering at more than 10 camps in Sittwe.

During a televised address to the country last Monday, State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi pledged there would be no discrimination on the basis of faith or ethnicity in the government’s fight against COVID-19 in Rakhine State. She also promised sufficient food supplies and financial support during a teleconference with the state chief minister last Friday.

As local relief groups have not been able to travel outside of Sittwe for about a week, the war-displaced in IDP camps in other townships are in need of basic food support, said Khine Kaung San, the director of the Wan Lark Development Foundation, which has been providing support to the Rakhine IDPs.

Adding to the problems, the Sin Pyun Kine Rakhine IDP camp in Minbya Township is currently facing flooding, while the Zaydi Pyin IDP camp in Rathedaung Township lacks adequate shelters, according to Daw Nyo Aye, the director of the Sittwe-based Rakhine Women Network.

“We planned to transport basic food items to the IDPs in Pazun Phay camp, which is located in a remote area in Mrauk-U, but are unable to send [the supplies] to them due to the COVID-19 restrictions,” she said.

Last week, more than 30 people from four ethnic Rakhine IDP camps in Mrauk-U were identified as a possible coronavirus cluster after NGO staff tested positive. However, the camp residents who had close contact with the NGO staff all tested negative, according to State Public Health Department.

Dr. Sai Win Zaw Hlaing, Rakhine State’s Public Health and Medical Services Officer, told The Irrawaddy on Monday that “so far no COVID-19 cases have been found in the IDP camps,” referring to both the Rakhine and Rohingya camps.

All Rohingya camp residents who had close contact with confirmed positive cases have been quarantined and have so far tested negative.

However, life has been difficult at the Rohingya camps in Sittwe since the outbreak began in mid-August, as residents can no longer go outside the camps and work as daily wage laborers in farming and fishing. As a result, access to primary healthcare and food has been difficult, said U Osmaan, a displaced Rohingya sheltering at the Ohn Taw South village IDP camp.

He said the clinic operated by Mercy Malaysia, which provides primary health care at the camp, had been closed for the past week.

Dr. Sai Win Zaw Hlaing said the state’s respective health care departments “are taking turns to provide health care to those camps” because of limited capacity.

He said that in order to be able to return to work, NGO staff at the camps are required to undergo testing. The Health Department tests them for two days, and they can resume their activities if the results are negative.

The Rakhine State government last week provided 20,000 kyats (US$15) cash support each to more than 29,000 poor families who have no regular income in downtown Sittwe, according to state government spokesman and Municipal Affairs Minister U Myint Win.

However, Rohingya people sheltering at the Ohn Taw North IDP camp in Sittwe said they had yet to receive the cash assistance.

U Aung Kyaw Oo, a Rohingya IDP at the Ohn Taw North camp, said that although rice supplies from the World Food Program arrived last week, some camp residents were not on the list of those entitled to receive the support.

“We heard those households in downtown Sittwe received 20,000 kyats each, but we haven’t received that support yet,” said Arafath, a Rohingya IDP at Ohn Taw North IDP camp in the Rakhine capital. Other Rohingya who spoke to The Irrawaddy said officials came to distribute masks and soap last Thursday.

Minister U Win Myint told The Irrawaddy on Monday the emergency cash support is “for those poor families in the villages, regardless of ethnicity, who had to stop work and lost income due to COVID-19 restrictions.”

The government provided the cash support to all those in Sittwe who are on a list compiled by villages and ward administrators. “For the [Rohingya] IDP camps, the life-saving and basic food support has been provided by the INGOs and UN agencies,” he said.

Muslim villages, as opposed to IDP camps, will receive the same support as others in the state, he added.

The minister added that the state government is planning to support poor families with no regular income across the state, as the stay-at-home order is in place for all of Rakhine. The state government has asked for 1 billion kyats in emergency funding from the central government, and State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has promised to secure financial assistance and food support for Rakhine State.

UN agencies and INGOs have temporarily stopped providing some social services after more than 10 humanitarian workers from at least five INGOs and two UN agencies in Rakhine tested positive for COVID-19.

In an email response to The Irrawaddy, Yao Rachel, the deputy country manager of Mercy Malaysia, which provided primary health care services in the IDPs camps until Aug. 20, when one of its team members tested positive, said: “Communities in the camps can still access emergency healthcare services via our free 24/7 tuk-tuk emergency referral service, where patients are able to access the Thet Kel Pyin Station Hospital to receive care.”

She added that the displaced Rakhine communities are also still able to access emergency health care at Sittwe General Hospital.

However, concerns about IDPs welfare lingers.

“We have crowds of people living in packed IDP camps, and we are concerned about the disease. It has been a week since the Mercy Malaysia clinic closed. There is no checking of health care and it is a big concern. If the virus spreads in the camps, we won’t be able to manage the situation,” said U Aung Kyaw Oo, a Rohingya at Ohn Taw North camp.

He said each family lives in a 10-foot-by-10-foot room that is attached to seven other rooms in a building, adding that in Ohn Taw North there are 341 buildings housing more than 2,500 households.

Ohn Taw South and Ohn Taw North IDP camps are among the most crowded, hosting a total of nearly 30,000 IDPs who were displaced in the 2012 communal conflict in Sittwe.

The United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), which supports more than 260,000 children in need in Rakhine State, said COVID-19 presents particular risks in humanitarian settings in Myanmar.

The agency itself had to temporarily suspend its provision of hygiene, water and sanitation after one of its staff tested positive for COVID-19.

“[It] is important that children and their families continue to have access to both regular services and COVID-19 risk-reduction measures and services,” UNICEF said.

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