Myanmar volunteers under strain as coronavirus toll grows

Myanmar volunteers under strain as coronavirus toll grows

A volunteer wearing a protective suit stands as he waits to transfer suspect cases to a quarantine centre amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease, in Yangon, Myanmar, on Saturday. (Reuters photo)
A volunteer wearing a protective suit stands as he waits to transfer suspect cases to a quarantine centre amid the outbreak of the novel coronavirus disease, in Yangon, Myanmar, on Saturday. (Reuters photo)

YANGON: As Myanmar's coronavirus infections soar, the work never seems to stop for volunteers who have stepped in to help carry those suspected of symptoms to quarantine centres or hospitals.

"The situation is not good. Our ambulances and crews can’t even get a break," said Kyi Myint, 66, who leads a volunteer group in Yankin township, one of the worst hit in Myanmar's main city, Yangon.

Myanmar's thousands of volunteers are a crucial element of the Covid-19 response in a country with one of the world's weakest health systems.

Myanmar appeared to have avoided the worst of the pandemic with only seven deaths a month ago - but a surge of infections has sent now the death toll to 371 from more than 16,500 cases.

According to Reuters data, Myanmar's death toll has doubled in 7.8 days - faster than any other country recording more than five deaths.

More than 45,000 people, including Covid-19 patients, those yet to be tested, their close contacts and returning migrant workers, are being housed in buildings from schools and monasteries to government offices and tower blocks.

Most of those are run by volunteers, who generally get no compensation. They are given whatever protection equipment is available and sometimes food and a place to stay.

"Without the volunteers, I don't think we could have survived,” said Aye, a recovered patient who did not want to give her full name for fear of being identified.

The health ministry did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the outbreak and the role of the volunteers.

"I usually get one or two hours sleep," said volunteer Zar Ni, who marked his 29th birthday by working on Thursday. "I am happy to help. At first I feared I would be infected but I no longer do."

Myanmar has imposed a broad lockdown to try to stop the virus from spreading, and the volunteers keep away from their families once they start work. Kyi Myint is staying with his 15-strong team in a Buddhist temple.

"This is not the time for depression, we are helping as much as we possibly can," he said. 

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