Myanmar & COVID-19

At Least 10 UN, INGO Workers Hit by COVID-19 in Myanmar’s Rakhine State

By Nyein Nyein 28 August 2020

Since the outbreak of COVID-19 in western Myanmar’s Rakhine State on Aug. 16, more than 10 local employees of UN agencies and INGOs (international NGOs) have contracted the disease in the state, where they worked providing humanitarian assistance to both Rakhine and Rohingya camps while supporting COVID-19 prevention in Rakhine State’s rural areas.

As of Friday morning, Myanmar had 628 positive cases in total, of which 217 were found in Rakhine alone.

The UN’s office in Myanmar said in a statement on Wednesday that “Among those who have recently been confirmed COVID-19-positive in Rakhine, personnel of United Nations agencies, funds and programs and of international nongovernmental organizations have also tested positive and are currently under hospital treatment.”

The UN office did not officially disclose the number of confirmed cases, however, and could not be reached for further comment.

According to local residents and sources close to the humanitarian agencies, those staff and personnel who tested positive for COVID-19 are from at least five NGOs, including Relief International (RI) and the Danish Refugee Council (DRC), and two UN agencies including the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF). Primary and secondary contacts of those confirmed cases are under quarantine.

Responding to The Irrawaddy’s questions on Friday, UNICEF said that one of the 217 cases confirmed between Aug. 16 and Friday “is a member of the UNICEF team.”

The agency said, “the colleague is in hospital isolation and is doing well” and all UNICEF staff are quarantining in accordance with guidance from the Ministry of Health and Sports and the Rakhine State government.

RI posted on Facebook on Sunday that three of its staff members had tested positive on Aug. 21-22. The three traveled to four Rakhine IDP camps in Mrauk-U over the previous two weeks to provide health care.

According to Rohingya internally displaced persons (IDPs) residing in camps near Sittwe, at least 20 residents of the Ohn Taw Che and Bawduba IDP camps who had close contact with DRC staff who tested positive have also been quarantined since last week.

IDPs in Sittwe, Pauktaw and Mrauk-U—where both Rohingya and Rakhine displaced are taking shelter—who had contact with some of the INGO staff who tested positive have also been tested for COVID-19 and placed under quarantine.

So far, all of the Rohingya IDPs who had close contact with confirmed cases last week have tested negative, according to the state Public Health Department.

After the country detected its first coronavirus cases in late March, the number of local transmissions grew at a slower rate than that of imported cases until Aug. 16, when the first case in the recent outbreak in Sittwe, the capital of Rakhine State, was reported. Since that case—a CB Bank employee—was reported, local transmissions have surged in the western Myanmar state, and humanitarian workers have not been spared.

This week, Myanmar imposed a partial lockdown on Rakhine State’s more than 3 million inhabitants.

The Rakhine State government on Aug. 21 ordered the UN agencies and all INGOs and NGOs to cease their workshops and training activities. The humanitarian agencies can continue provisions of critical life-saving activities, however, including distributing food and providing health services and COVID-19 response activities, while implementing strict COVID-19 preventative measures and following social distancing rules.

Dr. Soe Win Paing, deputy director of the Rakhine State Public Health Department, told The Irrawaddy that health officials had conducted contact tracing and were taking swab samples from both primary and secondary contacts of known COVID-19 cases.

“We followed the cases’ contacts, both primary and secondary contacts. The primary contacts are placed under facility quarantine and secondary contacts are advised to stay in home quarantine. We don’t discriminate between the IDP camps,” he said, referring to Rakhine and Rohingya camps. However, the health officials’ top priority is tracing the contacts of positive cases, he said.

Although Myanmar has tested nearly 150,000 people, the samples were taken mostly from close contacts of confirmed COVID-19 cases and from suspected patients. The government has not yet been able to test widely across the nation, raising concerns about the risks of further COVID-19 outbreaks in crowded IDP camps. Rakhine State hosts camps for ethnic Rakhine villagers who were recently displaced by fighting between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army (AA), as well as those for Rohingya displaced by earlier communal conflicts.

To ensure health services reach those IDPs camps, the government works with healthcare provision partners including international NGOs like Mercy Malaysia, according to Dr. Soe Win Paing.

Those humanitarian agencies whose staff tested positive for COVID-19 have suspended direct service provisions. These include UNICEF, which normally provides water, hygiene and sanitation services to people displaced by the conflict between the AA and the Myanmar armed forces.

UNICEF said that while it is following government protocols and holding discussions with partners to identify other options to provide this support, it hopes to resume these services within a few weeks.

It said, “Since January 2020, UNICEF and its partners have provided critical life-saving and life-sustaining support to approximately 225,000 people in Rakhine.

“However, if the current suspension of our direct programs and that of some of our partners continues, some of the activities—such as provision of clean water, latrine maintenance or support for malnourished children—could be at risk.”

Despite the challenges, the UN in Myanmar pledged in its statement to continue providing these services to some 670,000 vulnerable people across Rakhine State.