We can't just let Myanmar suffocate

We can't just let Myanmar suffocate

Long queues of wailing Myanmar people wait daily outside Yangon's oxygen distribution depots -- with scant regard for social distancing -- to refill their oxygen cylinders needed for their relatives at home, suffering from Covid-19.

Despite waiting hours, their cylinders often remain empty -- leaving their loved ones gasping for breath. People have become angry. Facebook, Myanmar's most popular social media platform, is flooded with posts mourning lives lost due to a lack of oxygen.

The third wave of Covid-19 has been hammering Myanmar, already hard hit by the post-coup turmoil since Feb 1. A day after the coup, the country's healthcare workers, who were active in combating the first and second waves of Covid-19 infections under the previous civilian government, walked off their jobs, refusing to serve an illegitimate government.

As a result, Myanmar's public health system was brought to a standstill and now most hospital and clinics remain closed. The junta's "war on medics" in which the healthcare workers and facilities have been directly targeted has exacerbated the situation. Medical staff have been arrested, attacked or even killed during the junta's brutal suppression campaign in which the military has not hesitated to raid hospitals and clinics, and attack patients and doctors inside.

According to a report in May by the United Nations' Country Team (UNCT), there have been at least 158 reported attacks on medical personnel and facilities in Myanmar, with more than 139 doctors arrested and charged since the military coup began. It is reported that at least, 36 hospitals have been raided. Meanwhile, Covid-19 testing has been virtually grounded since the coup. The vaccination rollout, started under the previous civilian government, has ceased.

The international community and health experts have warned of the escalating threat of Covid-19, adding this third wave could collapse the county's national public healthcare system. However, the junta have ignored these warnings. As it is preoccupied with maintaining its grip on power; it has lacked the capacity to ensure adequate disaster preparedness.

Resurgence of Third Wave

On March 29, the junta's Ministry of Health and Sports imposed stay-at-home orders in two towns on the Indian border -- Chin State's Tonzang and Sagaing Region's Tamu towns -- after a spike in cases. At the time people were relatively unaware of the outbreak, it was obscured by the country's overwhelming political and economic crisis.

Yet, the junta's priority is lopsided towards political control and bringing the situation back to normal. It opened public schools in early June -- through pressure and coercion -- despite a widespread boycott by teachers and students. As a result, schools became Covid hotspots, but because of its stubbornness, the junta only closed the schools on July 9.

Meanwhile, the junta marches on with its political crackdown on pro-democratic forces. Among the hardest hit was Kalay town, in the Sagaing Region: despite a stay-at-home order, the regime's forces continued their operations -- arresting and purging civilians, many of whom were already infected with Covid-19.

Devoid of an effective Covid-19 control policy and strategy, the pandemic has been rapidly spreading across the entire country, with daily cases hitting new highs every single day. In the monsoon when the seasonal flu is usually rampant, most families have suffered cold, flu and Covid symptoms.

With limited testing available, infections have continued to spread rapidly. People passed away in front of the hospitals while waiting for beds and treatment to become available; others have died at home. As the public healthcare system suffers a meltdown, mass panic sets in and people are driven to despair. Demand for pandemic-related products has risen, market goods depleted, and prices have soared.

Responses to the outbreak

On July 9, the junta's leader Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, suddenly chaired a coordination meeting on the prevention, control and treatment of Covid-19. Although the emergency meeting was held, the junta appeared ill-informed on how to respond to the current outbreak. In his speech, Gen Min Aung Hlaing was reported to be paying more attention to the prevention and acquiring of vaccines, rather than any practical and efficient response to the latest rise in cases and the crisis now engulfing the country as a whole.

But the healthcare system is in a worse shape. Medical staff who walked off their jobs are unwilling to return to work; the junta therefore has found it difficult even to recruit volunteers for medical centres.

There is insufficient essential medical equipment and supplies in the hospitals and medical centres. Public outrage against the authorities surged after the military government took control of oxygen supplies. Local media reported the regime's forces fired warning shots to disperse a crowd waiting to get oxygen cylinders refilled.

Meanwhile, the "shadow government", the National Unity Government (NUG), mostly consisting of ousted parliamentarians from the National League for Democracy (NLD), formed the National Committee for Prevention, Control and Treatment of Covid-19 on July 8. However, the NUG is extremely limited in resources and lacks the ability to tackle the outbreak amid the current crisis. All it could do was issue a statement online.

Resolving Humanitarian Disasters

The country is now in urgent need of international humanitarian intervention. So far, the international community has been hesitant to offer an effective response to the tragic events that have unfolded since the coup. There is no doubt that in due course Myanmar's unfolding catastrophe will spill-over its borders and affect neighbouring countries.

In a five-point consensus plan laid out by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (Asean) on April 25, it included an agreement on the "provision of humanitarian assistance through the Asean Coordination Center for Humanitarian Assistance on Disaster Management". This is increasingly applicable given the present state of affairs.

But Asean faces several obstacles. Firstly, most other Asean countries are themselves being overwhelmed as they handle their own upsurge in Covid-19 cases. The second concerns the ongoing political dynamics within Myanmar.

If Asean and the international community channelled its assistance through the junta -- as before -- it will certainly prove to be ineffective. It will be perceived as lacking genuine will and will be doubted by the international community.

Meanwhile, the general public has lost trust in the junta. They rarely follow the health-related measures due to the junta's lack of legitimacy and authority, especially in the ethnic border regions.

Given this context, Asean cannot alone help resolve Myanmar's humanitarian disaster. A UN-Asean partnership should be considered rather than letting Asean go it alone. The UN has been widely criticised for its repeated failures to make a timely, adequate response to the Myanmar crisis.

But the current situation in the country is no longer an ordinary humanitarian crisis but an alarming humanitarian disaster within a failing state. Therefore, the UN should no longer be hesitant or indifferent and should play an active leading role in working with Asean.

The UN-Asean partnership should consider a new humanitarian intervention model with a joint-task force and a joint strategy. It should run the process of initiating broad engagement with different political forces, establishing a presence inside the country, mobilising and coordinating resources, and setting up mechanisms to resolve the humanitarian disaster instead of just providing humanitarian assistance.

Of course, this is easier said than done but Myanmar's current humanitarian disaster cannot be stopped without the direct and active involvement of the international community. Further hesitation and inaction by the international community may cause the loss of thousands of lives. It is time for the UN to lead a joint international intervention to tackle Myanmar's humanitarian disaster.

The time has come to act!


Ye Myo Hein is a researcher and executive director of Taguang Institute of Political Studies based in Yangon.

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