6 April 2020
It has been more than three months since COVID-19 brought the world to a near stop.
Here in Myanmar, the first two positive cases were found only two weeks ago, now reaching 21 confirmed cases and many hundreds of people are in community quarantine facilities under strict management by the Ministry of Health and Sports (MoHS). Almost all confirmed cases either came back from countries with high COVID-19 prevalence or had an exposure to those who came back from abroad.
Myanmar faces an additional challenge at this time of year: Burmese New Year or Thingyan – a ten-day holiday period for the country, when people travel both within and back to Myanmar to celebrate with their families. In the past weeks, the country has been struggling to manage the return of almost 300,000 migrant workers from Thailand and beyond.
The government has proactively responded to this pandemic by providing extensive public education, using different media, on the importance of hand washing, social distancing and encouraging those who have come back from abroad to stay at home upon their return. In response to these measures, Yangon has seen a 90% reduction in its usual traffic on the road in the last two weeks.
The MoHS is preparing to stock up on essential personal protective equipment (PPE) for its staff, as well as additional ventilators and supplies of oxygen. The National Health Laboratory is the one and only testing centre of COVID-19 virus and all tests are carried out manually, dramatically limiting the number of tests that can be offered each day. To date, only those who have symptoms or who are at quarantine facilities are offered testing and a total of around 1,500 tests have been done during the last six weeks.
Beyond these health measures, the government are keen to avoid a situation of total lock down recognising the economic hardship this would bring on the poorest groups of the population. Myanmar, after all, does not have a social security system to support such populations. With the expected long-term restrictions on movement and social enterprises and having very restricted national reserves, Myanmar’s economy is bound to suffer and the government will need innovative strategies and international support to outlast this.
With a very limited number of doctors and nurses per 100,000 patients, the COVID-19 pandemic will stretch all healthcare professionals in Myanmar to a level not witnessed before. In preparation for this, volunteers, doctors and nurses who do not work under the MoHS, have been invited to join the workforce. Against all odds, it is overwhelming to see the heightened spirits of junior doctors and nurses working at the ground level. MoHS must do all it can to protect our rare jewels of human resources by providing effective supplies and management to deliver the care people of Myanmar deserve.
Individuals and local NGOs have also joined hands by forming small groups in different townships, who go around each street with loudspeakers to enhance the MoHS’ COVID-19 education efforts. The religious leaders have come out and offered their spacious meditation centres to be used as community quarantine facilities, providing accommodation space for 4,000 people in Yangon alone. Volunteer doctors and nurses manage these facilities and catering is donated by pro-bono associations such as ‘I Love Yangon’. On a weekly basis, the MoHS has been receiving donations of funds, PPE and medical equipment, one of which is a Roche Cobas 6800 automated PCR analyser (worth 600,000 USD). Once it is up and running, it will enable more patients to be tested.
The death rate is escalating each day, testing our stamina from all perspectives. As Myanmar prepares its best to face the peak of the virus, all I can say for now is we are united both nationally and internationally.
With this unbreakable unity that we hold, I am convinced that the world will survive this historic battle and come out even stronger than ever before with many lessons learnt through this together.