Myanmar’s shadow government warned Monday 400,000 people could die if the military junta mismanages the battle with a third wave of COVID-19, as dire shortages of oxygen caused daily death tolls to spike and the United Nations warned of devastation.
The military junta that seized power on Feb. 1 is making the situation worse in Myanmar by underreporting the number of confirmed cases and hiding the fact that it was not prepared for the third wave, Zaw Wai Soe, the health minister of the National Unity Government (NUG) of lawmakers ousted by the army coup, told RFA’s Myanmar Service in an interview.
“Our epidemiologists have been checking and analyzing the situation, the infections and the deaths,” he said.
“We have been checking the infection rates, the positive cases and what the latest strain could do, and I’d say it is possible that more than 300,000 or up to 400,000 lives could be lost if necessary effective actions are not taken in a timely manner to slow down the infections,” added Zaw Wai Soe.
“I think there are over 1,000 deaths a day now. Saying there are about 6,000 to 7,000 new positive cases per day is also an understatement. They are under-reporting. If all the data are systematically collected, I think there could be about 20,000 positive cases,” he said.
Myanmar reported a daily new case total higher than 5,300 cases per day on average over the seven-day period ending Sunday.
The UN Country Team in Myanmar warned Monday that the third wave could be potentially catastrophic for the country of 54 million people.
“The current outbreak of COVID-19 is expected to have devastating consequences for the health of the population and for the economy. A renewed ‘whole of society’ approach is needed now more than ever, allowing all health professionals to work in safety, and both public and private providers enabled to contribute to the response,” the team said in a statement.
The country team’s statement said that the team was working with “multiple channels” to assist in vaccination and to relieve the ongoing oxygen shortage, a problem that becomes more dire as infections are on the rise.
Aid groups told RFA that oxygen demand is very high and that it is almost impossible to get oxygen in some places, because suppliers require a letter of recommendation from the military.
Additionally, a junta-mandated curfew causes a daily morning rush to oxygen distributors as people try, sometimes in vain, to refill canisters to save their ill loved ones.
“What we are doing now is not enough to get the oxygen to fill our canisters,” an aid worker told RFA.
“When we go for refills, we are greeted by signs that say ‘No refills without authorization,’” added the aid worker.
A home for senior citizens in Yangon’s North Dagon township that houses many COVID-19 patients who urgently need oxygen has no means of buying it, a volunteer at a charity told RFA.
A resident of Yangon said increasing numbers of infected made the shortage worse.
"The problem now is a complete shortage,” he told RFA.
“Covid patients have taken up most of the oxygen cylinders, and many of my suppliers say they have run out of tanks completely,” added the Yangon source. “The price of oxygen in the outside market has risen sharply."
A social media post on July 17 showed junta troops confiscate four truckloads of oxygen cylinders at the Sinmalaik dockyard in Yangon’s Kamayut township, where some of the people were waiting in line to buy oxygen said they were asked to register at the township’s general administration office first.
An aid worker told RFA that troops have been dispersing crowds of hopeful oxygen customers in South Dagon.
"Even if I have money, I can't get a refill, let alone buy an oxygen cylinder. One man died yesterday while queuing to have a refill,” the aid worker said.
“Of course, the way things are done is also not systematic. For example, if they are going to sell two hundred tanks, they should give out two hundred tokens. Then there wouldn’t be too many people waiting,” the worker added.
“Instead, they took a list of about five hundred people and there were about a thousand people, then the army came and warned the factory manager and asked the large crowd to disperse. The news spread and the situation got worse,” said the aid worker.
RFA has not been able to confirm reports on social media that the military dispersed crowds of people waiting to buy oxygen.
The junta’s deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun said at a news conference on July 12 that many oxygen production facilities were barred from selling to individual purchasers.
"We have some restrictions for the private sector. The restrictions are for the suppliers not to sell to individual customers but only to hospitals and clinics," he said, saying the measure was to prevent price gouging, fraud and hoarding.
There have also been calls for action on social media, with a 40-liter oxygen tank and accessories being sold for 1.5 million kyats (U.S. $913)--more than ten times the normal price.
The junta leader Sr. Gen Min Aung Hlaing recently told the military-owned Myawaddy TV that nearly 2,000 Covid treatment quarantine centers had been set up for nearly 100,000 patients and that oxygen tanks were being bought from neighboring Thailand for distribution to hospitals and Covid centers.
As of July 18, the junta’s Ministry of Health said there were more than 230,000 confirmed cases and 5,000 deaths.
Reported by Khin Khin Ei and others for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Eugene Whong.