Myanmar & COVID-19

Myanmar Volunteers Play Vital Role in Yangon’s Battle Against COVID-19

By Zaw Zaw Htwe 29 October 2020

YANGON—As Myanmar’s commercial hub, Yangon is finding it must rely not only on the strength of its medical professionals, but also on volunteers in its fight against the coronavirus pandemic.

With a population of more than 7 million, the city has reported about 1,000 new COVID-19 cases a day since a second wave hit in August. As of Wednesday evening, Myanmar’s total number of coronavirus cases was approaching 50,000; of that total, Yangon had contributed 38,071cases. The death toll nationally has reached more than 1,170.

Myanmar’s health system is ranked as one of the world’s weakest. When Yangon was hit hard, the city’s medical staff and hospitals were overwhelmed by the soaring number of COVID-19 patients each day. At the same time, the government’s increased testing and contact tracing prompted a spike in the hospitalization and isolation of people suspected to have been exposed to patients at government-run quarantine centers. To cope with the caseload, the Yangon government urgently converted a football field, vacant housing complexes and convention centers into temporary hospitals and quarantine centers.

Then came the manpower problem. There was a shortage of personnel—from medics to drivers to cleaners—to handle the volume of cases. Most of the existing staff complained of exhaustion.

That’s where volunteers like Ko Kaung Htet came in.

Volunteers in the PPE changing room at a Yangon facility quarantine center. / Yangon Region Youth Affairs Committee

Trained as a medical doctor but now a vintage furniture dealer by profession, the former photojournalist recently registered as a volunteer at a makeshift COVID-19 center in Hlaing Township where more than 200 patients with mild symptoms were being isolated.

“Despite the fact that I left the medical profession a long time [eight years] ago, I felt I should help in Yangon’s fight against the pandemic as a doctor. I can see that my doctor friends are weary in this battle,” he said.

At the center, doctors have to care for COVID-19 patients using a tele-consultation system 24 hours a day. Machines monitoring vital signs are installed in all patient rooms. Doctors have to check on each patient’s condition daily via intercom.

He said that volunteers have to provide direct-contact care such as administering medicines to COVID-19 patients with underlying diseases. They also have to perform blood pressure and oxygen level checks on patients.

Ko Kaung Htet, who volunteered for 11 days at the center, said that in a developing country like Myanmar, the cooperation of the public is essential in overcoming COVID-19. Even developed countries have to struggle to combat the coronavirus, he noted.

A volunteer prepares to take food boxes to people isolated in a makeshift COVID-19 center in Yangon. / Yangon Region Youth Affairs Committee

Apart from outside volunteers, COVID-19-infected medical staff members were also taking care of other COVID-19 patients with underlying conditions. Some even helped in the cleaning of their wards.

When Dr. Zon Phyo Phyo Kyaw tested positive and was admitted to Phaunggyi Makeshift Hospital with her husband, who also tested positive, early last month, the couple turned themselves into frontline volunteers for 40 patients in their ward.

They cooperated in cleaning the ward and checked on the vital signs of all patients daily.

The husband, Ko Thant Lwan Wai Chit, said they also take care of those patients with chronic illnesses, and his wife provides treatment for patients with underlying diseases. Their cooperation eased the burden on medical staff and the doctors of the ward, reducing the amount of direct contact between doctors and patients.

“For a patient with good health, there are many things we can do to help in the patient ward. So, we help the medical staff at the same time as we thank them for treating us as patients,” said Ko Thant Lwan Wai Chit.

‘Power of volunteers’

After the first case of COVID-19 in Myanmar was detected in late March, several thousand people rushed to volunteer across the country, knowing that the limited number of human resources in the health sector would be insufficient. At that time, people volunteered on the frontline at quarantine centers even though they had not been well trained or provided with enough personal protective equipment (PPE).

Volunteers on duty at a makeshift COVID-19 center in Yangon. / Yangon Region Youth Affairs Committee

That public response prompted not only praise from Myanmar State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, but also promises to provide safety equipment and training for volunteers.

“We value the power of volunteers. We also depend on the volunteers. Without the power of volunteers, we can’t do COVID-19 prevention work effectively,” she said.

Health authorities said on Wednesday that more than 8,000 COVID-19 patients are currently hospitalized in Yangon.

According to the latest data, on Oct. 21, a total of 12,982 people were isolated at quarantine centers in Yangon for having histories of travel or contact with known COVID-19 patients.

Currently in Yangon, more than 15,000 volunteers are helping at hospitals and quarantine centers, according to Ko D Nyein Lynn, secretary of the Yangon Region Youth Affairs Committee, which is recruiting and managing the volunteers for the city’s fight against COVID-19.

He said volunteers are helping to accommodate suspected COVID-19 cases and patients at quarantine centers and hospitals. They are also cleaning, helping medics to take swab samples, and disinfecting and transporting patients to hospitals, as well as providing meals and other necessities.

A volunteer collects garbage left by COVID-19 patients at the Aung Myintmo temporary COVID-19 hospital in Yangon’s South Dagon Township. / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

“We still need more volunteers. The current volunteers on the ground are exhausted from working long hours,” said committee secretary Ko D Nyein Lynn.

Normally, volunteers at the COVID-19 centers would be expected to work from 7 a.m. to 6 p.m. with occasional breaks. But sometimes, volunteers have had to work as late as 3 a.m. dealing with an influx of new admissions.

Apart from the risk of exposure to COVID-19-positive patients, volunteers are also bombarded with complaints from patients who are either angry or stressed over being held at the centers as well as being prohibited from smoking or chewing betel quids.

Volunteers need to be very patient in dealing with those complaints and trying to reduce the level of stress, said Ma Yi Yi Khaing, a volunteer at Aung Myintmo COVID-19 center in Yangon’s South Dagon Township.

A volunteer communicates with COVID-19 patients at the Aung Myintmo temporary COVID-19 hospital in Yangon’s South Dagon Township. / Aung Kyaw Htet / The Irrawaddy

“We talk to them and treat them like family members. Some patients are fearful when they see us in PPE,” she said.

Eventually, patients realize the important role of volunteers and some even leave thank you notes when they are released, according to volunteers.

“Patients enjoy staying at the centers after they get to know us. When that happens, I also feel really happy, though I am sweaty in my PPE” said Ma Yi Yi Khine.

Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, director of the Emerging Infectious Disease Epidemiology Unit of the Health Ministry, acknowledged that volunteers have been very effective in taking care of the patients as well as containing the spread of the virus in the city.

“Volunteers are assisting us with a deep sense of benevolence without being paid. They help the battle against COVID-19 while knowing it exposes them to a greater risk of infection. They all are worthy of our respect,” she said.

When she learned about Yangon’s need for volunteers in September, Daw Than Than Aye, 55, knew she had to head to the city with other volunteers from Lashio and Namatu in Myanmar’s northern Shan State.

Volunteers take a break at the facility quarantine center in Yangon’s Hlaing Township. / Yangon Region Youth Affairs Committee

“I think we need to help Yangon since its cases are soaring,” said Daw Than Than Aye. Her decision to volunteer brought objections from her two daughters because she runs a greater risk of infection. She has suffered from hypertension, stomach problems and kidney disease.

Now at Aung Myintmo makeshift COVID-19 hospital, she has been assigned to manage the food boxes for 1,000 patients. Because of her age, she avoids direct contact with patients.

Asked if she fears the virus, Daw Than Than Aye replied that all human being are mortal.

“I asked myself whether I want to die without making life better for others or not?” she said. “I want to die while helping other people.”

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