Three days before her arrest by soldiers, Myanmar’s civilian leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi received her first dose of a coronavirus vaccine. His high-profile inoculation was part of a national campaign to fight the virus through testing, wearing masks, lockdowns and vaccination.
But like the civilian government led by Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, its program to contain Covid-19 was rejected by the military when it took power in the February 1 coup.
“There had been a real push towards testing, surveillance and immunization and it all fell apart after February 1,” said Alessandra Dentice, head of the UNICEF Myanmar office.
Now the country, reeling from brutal military repression and crippled by a multi-month nationwide strike, is paying the price for the junta’s neglect of the pandemic. According to data reported by the regime’s health ministry, the number of daily reported Covid-19 cases has risen sharply, and with limited testing underway, the positivity rate jumped to nearly 22% on Thursday. Health experts believe many more cases go undetected.
Most worrying are the outbreaks in the three largest communities near the border with India, the country where the highly contagious Delta variant was first identified. The variant was detected among the cases.
On Thursday, 20 townships in six states and regions were placed under stay-at-home orders linked to the pandemic by the military. Outbreaks have also been reported in Yangon, the largest city, and Naypyidaw, the capital. In Mandalay, the second largest city, all seven townships were placed under stay-at-home orders on Thursday. The city’s six hospitals that accept coronavirus patients have been filled to capacity since last week, according to a local medical charity.
The regime stopped before imposing closures or restricting movement from areas where epidemics are increasing.
The deposed government of the Southeast Asian nation had procured 3.5 million vaccines in India before the coup. The junta requisitioned most of the shooting, but ignored plans to prioritize vaccinations for the elderly. Some shots were used to vaccinate the soldiers, according to a doctor at a military hospital in Yangon. In protest, many doctors refused to get a second dose of the diet.
The military’s refusal to provide details of its vaccination schedule prompted Covax, the global vaccine-sharing program, to delay a delivery of 5.5 million doses in March, said Dr Stephan Paul Jost, representative of the World Health Organization for Myanmar. No new shipments are planned.
Myanmar’s health system could collapse under the epidemic. Doctors and other health workers have already gone on strike to protest against the coup and troops have occupied dozens of medical facilities, prompting many patients to stay away for fear of being arrested or shot. Some doctors estimate that hundreds of patients die every week because they cannot get the care they need.
“De facto authorities must create an environment where people can work without fear and patients can obtain care without fear,” said Dr Jost. “This creates the ultimate dilemma for health workers, whether serving the country of the future or the patients of the present.”
One community hard hit by the coronavirus is the town of Kalay, 65 miles from the border with India. In April, soldiers firing machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades attacked anti-coup protesters there who had barricaded the streets of Kalay, killing at least 11 people. Community leaders say the regime is providing little help in tackling the epidemic.
Kalay General Hospital, the only public hospital in the area, has been overwhelmed by the increase in the number of cases. All of its beds are occupied by people in critical condition, said Lal Puia, volunteer manager of the Ate Sut community center, which has been turned into a field hospital. More than 250 people who test positive remain there, he said, and many more remain at home, where they are at risk of infecting family members.
The city has been placed under a stay-at-home order and its streets are empty except for people buying food and medicine or trying to rent oxygen tanks, which are scarce.
The regime reports that 138 people have died nationwide from Covid-19 in the past two months, including 13 on Thursday. Mr Lal estimates that nearly 400 people have died in his community alone during the same period, although the number could not be independently confirmed.
“The military government is not doing anything for Covid here so people have to take care of themselves,” Mr Lal said. “Now the situation is very bad. Every home has Covid patients because there aren’t enough places to self-isolate. “
The situation is so dire in Kalay that a pregnant woman with Covid-19 died last month because she could not seek treatment, relatives have said.
Bual Cin Par, 37, was struggling to breathe and was about to give birth when a soldier diverted her from the understaffed General Hospital at gunpoint and threatened to shoot her if she does not leave, said a family member accompanying her. The mother of four was also denied treatment at the city’s military hospital. She rented an oxygen tank but died shortly after returning home. Her baby also died.
Myanmar suffered a major epidemic from September to January, with more than 140,000 cases and 3,100 deaths. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi’s health ministry, which tested more than 20,000 people a day, had nearly contained the virus by February 1, according to government data.
Some health experts feared that large street protests against the military could lead to an increase in infections. Most of the protesters wore face masks, which may have helped keep transmission relatively low, Dr Jost said. A military-enforced curfew also helped. But when testing plunged after the coup, it became difficult to verify the number of cases in the country.
In recent days, tests have gradually increased to 9,400 per day, according to the Department of Health. But the positivity rate has also increased, having more than doubled in the past four weeks, Dr Jost said. In mid-June, the ministry confirmed the presence of the Delta, Alpha and Kappa variants of the virus.
International health experts had previously praised Myanmar’s immunization program. Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi was quick to secure a pledge of 3.5 million vaccines from India, the first batch of which arrived at the end of January. The government vaccinated 105,000 healthcare workers – and many senior officials – in the days leading up to the coup.
A spokeswoman for the junta’s health ministry, Dr Khin Khin Gyi, said the 3.5 million doses have now been administered and many of them have been made available to the public in vaccination centers across the country. China has since donated half a million doses of its Sinopharm vaccine, 200,000 of which are for the military, she said.
Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi, who faces half a dozen criminal charges, received her second dose of the vaccine in detention. She is being held in solitary confinement and learned this week of the recent coronavirus outbreaks in Myanmar from her lawyer, Daw Min Min Soe. “She was very worried,” said the lawyer. “She wants everyone to be aware of Covid and take care of it. “