As neighboring countries face rising numbers of coronavirus cases, Myanmar health officials have expressed concern that a third wave of COVID-19 could hit the Southeast Asian nation under a military junta that seized power three months ago.
In India to the northwest, more than 300,000 people are being infected daily and thousands are dying, while Thailand to the southeast is already experiencing a third wave.
Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, a spokeswoman for the Ministry of Health and Sports, warned on Apr. 27 that a third COVID-19 outbreak was likely in Myanmar, which has been rocked by nationwide protests against the military regime and subsequent violent crackdowns since Feb. 1.
“There is a possibility of a third wave of the pandemic coming,” she said. “It is possible that there are outbreaks among the large crowds of people.”
“More than 60 percent of infected patients don’t show symptoms,” she said. “Only when they got tested do we have learned about the infections.”
Khin Khin Gyi also spoke out on COVID-19 and prevention measures under the civilian-led government under country leader Aung San Suu Kyi before it was overthrown.
On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health and Sports recorded 16 new confirmed COVID-19 cases, bringing the total number of infections to date to 142,858, while the total number of deaths held at 3,209.
Since the military takeover, most of the country’s doctors and nurses have joined the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) of striking workers who opposed the junta and have largely boycotted its vaccination drive.
Myanmar received 3.5 million vaccines from India around the end of January under a vaccine drive implemented by the former National League for Democracy government.
Fear of old doses
Though the junta has urged people in residential areas to get vaccinated, its security forces have arrested many health care works for participating in the CDM, limiting the number of professionals who can administer the jabs.
A doctor in Yangon who requested anonymity for security reasons said that people will not accept vaccines provided by the regime because vials that have sat too long in storage may have lost their effectiveness.
“The remaining vaccines are not effective because of the delay in storage,” he said. “The people won’t accept them.”
A young man from northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region who did not want to be identified said he would not get a virus vaccine under the military regime for another reason.
“I will not get the vaccines provided by the terrorist regime because they are murdering hundreds of people, and I don’t trust them,” he said, referring to the nearly 770 people who have been killed by security forces in the weeks following the coup.
Myanmar detected its first positive COVID-19 case on March 23, 2020. The country, which shares a long land border with China, initially had a low number of confirmed infections and single-digit deaths until mid-August, when the number of COVID-19 cases began to skyrocket during a second wave that was deadlier then the first.
To contain the spread, Myanmar officials put in place stay-at-home orders, lockdowns, and mandatory quarantines for those traveling to other states and regions within the country as well as for those returning to Myanmar from abroad.
In response, Khin Khin Gyi said the storage and maintenance process for the more than one million doses of the vaccine has not been compromised.
“There is no such thing as us stopping our work because of the absence of some people,” she said. “The hospitals are still operating. Under the current situation, plans to keep medical facilities operational down to the township level are in place.”
No one to provide treatment
At least 1.9 million people of Myanmar’s population of 54 million have received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, according to health officials.
The ruling junta has said that the number of people being tested for the virus has dropped to about 2,000 a day compared to nearly 150,000 people daily under the NLD government.
An assistant doctor from Mandalay General Hospital, who is participating in the CDM, said this was due in part to a lack of health care workers.
“There is no medical staff to take the swabs, no staff to analyze the samples in the lab, no doctors to test the results,” he said. “Even if someone tested positive, there is no one in the hospital who can provide treatment. All of us are participating in the CDM.”
Reported by Soe San Aung for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.