How a village in Myanmar is fighting the COVID-19 outbreak – The Diplomat


I was born and raised in a village in the Mandalay region of central Myanmar. I spent 14 years of my life there and completed my primary and secondary education at the village school. In this article, I share how my home village is coping with Myanmar’s devastating third wave of COVID-19 under the country’s dysfunctional military rule, the challenges the village faces, and the forms of assistance it needs to control the outbreak. epidemic.

I hope this article can offer different perspectives on the lived realities of the third wave of COVID-19 in Myanmar and let international aid providers know how difficult the situation has become in the context of the political crisis in Myanmar. country.

On February 1, Myanmar’s military overthrew the elected government, sparking mass protests across the country. The ensuing crackdown by security forces killed more than 900 civilians. Another 5,000 people are still being held. The political crisis was shortly followed by an economic crisis and a health disaster. The third major wave of COVID-19 infections in the country began in early June. Despite first warnings of an impending epidemic, the military continued to pressure schools to open and put pressure on officials who challenge the junta to come back to work. The junta’s failing institutions, coupled with the generals’ unwillingness to respond quickly to the health care crisis, led to a rising COVID-19 death toll in June and July. The number of infections and deaths has soared.

Figures reported to the World Health Organization and available through data platforms such as Our World in Data, give a misleading impression of the spread of COVID-19 in Myanmar. The real picture is much worse. Most positive cases tested at local community centers or at home are not reported. The same goes for deaths from COVID-19.

My native village, whose name I have chosen to keep silent for fear of reprisals from the military junta, is inhabited by 1,452 villagers living in 355 households. The village administrator was recently appointed by the military regime. Despite the outbreak of COVID-19 in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay, the junta-appointed administrator failed to take any measures to contain the possible outbreak in the village, and thus the task of handling the outbreak of COVID-19 in the village fell into the hands of the villagers themselves.

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First, they started systematically testing the village for COVID-19 and tried to buy as many test kits as possible. Under the direction of the village head monk, on July 22, they tested all the villagers who reported feeling sick or unwell. Of 28 tested, 11 villagers tested positive for COVID-19. On July 24, another round of testing was carried out among close contacts of positive cases. Of the 22 tested, seven tested positive. On July 27, a new set of close contacts were tested and nine of the 25 tested gave positive results.

The first major challenge faced by the village was locating and securing an adequate supply of rapid test kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), face masks, body bags, hand sanitizers. The national epidemic has led to an immediate shortage of medical supplies, even in cities. For small villages, getting enough medicine and PPE was all the more difficult. Fortunately, a student from our village who lived and studied in the town had a contact there, who later became the sole buyer of the drugs, test kits and PPE the village needed. Even then, supplying Mandalay took some time; supplies could only be transported to the village on irregular occasions when a truck traveled to and from Mandalay. But our village was lucky to have a buyer in town. Most other villages don’t even have the capacity to test how many of their residents are infected with COVID-19, allowing the disease to spread to their most vulnerable populations.

The second major challenge is getting the money to buy the necessary supplies. A number of people from the village work in foreign countries such as South Korea and China, most as low-paid migrant workers. Of the savings they set aside each month, many of these people chose to return money to the village for COVID-19 relief, at the expense of returning it to their families.

Does the village receive the same amount it pays? No. Many different remittance agents and channels are used, each of which levies high transaction fees, largely due to the poor state of Myanmar’s banking sector, a direct result of the military takeover. All of these costs could have been avoided if the coup had not destroyed the banking sector.

For now, remittances are the only and main source of money to buy medicines, test kits and PPE, and to care for the sick. But the village will not always be able to rely on remittances from overseas workers. Can villagers themselves contribute to the COVID-19 fund? Maybe not. There has been virtually no productive economic activity since the coup, and crop values ​​have fallen dramatically since February, according to a recent report from the World Bank, along with rising prices of food and other basic necessities. Thus, most farmers will suffer losses this harvest season, which means that in the coming months the village could run out of funds, increasing the risk of an uncontrollable epidemic.

A third major challenge is village policy. As mentioned, the village administrator was appointed by the State Administrative Council (SAC) of the military and avoided responsibility for taking measures to contain COVID-19. Responsibility for containing the massive outbreak – including testing, isolation, contact tracing and curing the sick – therefore fell into the hands of the village monk and young volunteers. All are in the pro-democracy camp, and some of the healthcare workers who helped with the tests were fired by the SAC for participating nationwide civil disobedience movement.

The battle for political legitimacy at the level of village administration is complicated. Politics can sometimes be dirty. As the village monk, volunteers and health workers fired by the SAC regime now work tirelessly to test, isolate positive cases and treat the sick, they face the constant threat of retaliation from appointed administrators. by the SAC and other informants. These are not all personal threats per se. Rather, threats come in the form of who has the right to use vital village infrastructure such as schools and medical facilities.

In this situation, the administrator appointed by the SAC has made no attempt to contain the epidemic, but he claims that he is able to authorize the use of such an infrastructure. Meanwhile, the young volunteers, most of whom are pro-democracy, are unwilling to engage with the administrator. Thus, the head monk must step in and engage with the SAC-appointed administrator to allow the use of village schools as ad hoc quarantine and healthcare facilities. The villagers were finally given the green light on July 24. Even then, volunteers and health workers no longer receive any support from the administrator.

For an international aid provider, these intra-village political and legitimacy battles may not be visible. However, this is the reality of how the battle against COVID-19 is unfolding at the local level in Myanmar.

As I mentioned above, the inhabitants of the village have limited financial and technical resources. They cannot test every member of the community. The best that can be done is to screen close contacts of known positive cases, educate villagers about the virus and provide support to quarantined families. In our case, the senior monk took the lead in these efforts.

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A team of volunteers has been sent to each household to distribute masks and hand sanitizers and educate people on other measures, including physical distancing, disposal of used masks and other measures that need to be strictly followed. Before sending the volunteers, they invited a doctor to sensitize the volunteers via Zoom meetings. However, respecting physical distancing remains a challenge, suggesting that simply educating people is not enough. Villagers are still looking to enforce safe distancing requirements as much as possible.

Myanmar is dying now. The number of reported cases greatly underestimates the extent of the outbreak. The scale and intensity is on a whole new level on the pitch. In this article, I call on the international community to help Myanmar in the right way to alleviate the suffering of millions of people and their families.

The case of my home village indicates that the army’s SAC, which recently rebranded itself as the “interim government”, is doing little to alleviate the COVID-19 epidemic. For now, the people of Myanmar have no one to rely on. My village has only limited resources, and there are hundreds of thousands of villages in Myanmar that have even less. International aid should be offered directly to the lower levels of government – ​​the village – and should engage with those fighting for the lives of their loved ones, a duty that SAC and its associates have shown little ability or will. to accomplish.


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