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COVID and the coup: Burma in a double crisis

Myanmar has one of the weakest health systems in the world and the combination of COVID and a military coup has brought it to the brink of total collapse.

About four months before the third wave of the coronavirus hit Myanmar, killing hundreds of people a day, businessman Soe Moe Naung (name changed) posted on social media that he and his family had been vaccinated at a public vaccination center.   

He also urged his countrymen to get vaccinated.

But the message drew fierce accusations and insults, forcing Somonai to hide the post for the time being.

His critics argue that the vaccinations somehow legitimized the February military coup that led to the overthrow of the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD).

Somonai, who is an NLD supporter, explained at the time why he had agreed to receive the injections.” The vaccines were procured by the NLD government for the people of Burma. It is the citizens’ right …… Vaccination is a different issue and has nothing to do with politics.”

Soe Moe Naung may be a pragmatist, but his views are shared by only a minority of Burmese.

Oppose the military and don’t vaccinate

Since the coup on 1 February, many people across Burma have refused to be vaccinated in defiance of the military.

“My mother has not been vaccinated despite her age, probably because her son, my brother, said the revolution is not over yet,” said Hnin Yee Aung (name changed), a middle-aged woman in Yangon.

Her brother, a doctor, works in a public hospital and has been involved in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) for several months.

Others do not get vaccinated because they fear consequences and rejection by pro-democracy groups. Those who do get vaccinated often face backlash on social media, including name-calling and slander.

Many health sector workers were among the first to walk off the job and join the CDM against the army.

Other public sector workers followed suit, dealing a severe blow to the government and prompting the junta to increase pressure on government workers to return to work.

When the military started arresting health workers critical of the regime, many of them went into hiding.

Some CDM-affiliated doctors initially treated patients in private facilities, but stopped treating them after they saw soldiers and police stationed near their private clinics.

COVID finds health system weak and overwhelmed

When the third wave of COVID broke out, Myanmar’s widely publicised military had to cope with the crisis, and the health system faced severe shortages not only of essential medicines and equipment, but also of medical personnel. 

The system was quickly overwhelmed by the scale of the emergency, with thousands of new infections and a rising number of deaths.

On 25 July alone, 355 people died from COVID-related diseases, and official figures now put the total death toll at over 7,100, including only hospital deaths.

Army Chief Min Aung Hlaing recently made a public appeal to medical personnel to resume work, stating that all medical personnel must work together to deal with the COVID emergency.

However, doctors belonging to the CDM rejected the appeal, leading to memes on social media such as “If you return to the barracks, we will return” calling on the military to abandon the coup and return power to the democratically elected government.

People are under pressure again

Myanmar already has one of the weakest health systems in the region and the combined effects of COVID and the coup have brought it to the brink of total collapse.

In recent weeks, disturbing images have circulated of hospitals suffering severe shortages of medical oxygen, while desperate relatives struggle to get oxygen supplies for their loved ones.

In an open letter to the international community, the Burmese Government of National Unity, formed by opponents of the coup, pointed to “increasing reports of oxygen shortages and the inhumane and blatant seizure of oxygen production facilities by the security forces”.

There are also allegations that the security services are systematically withholding oxygen supplies and denying the population access to it, allegations that the committee believes are false and politically motivated.

At a recent meeting to assess the COVID situation, the head of the panel said that the health emergency was being misused and misrepresented on social media for political purposes, state media reported.

Officials also said the government had imported enough portable oxygen concentrators and other COVID-related equipment to meet the growing demand.

Meanwhile, the public vaccination program resumed on 25 July following the recent arrival of vaccines from China. People who have not yet been vaccinated are again under pressure to decide whether to do so.

“This time I will urge my mother to get vaccinated. However, it is up to her and my family,” said Hnin Yee Aung.

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