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Two years on from the military coup in Myanmar, the invisible plight of health workers requires urgent action

1 February 2023


Today marks the second anniversary of the military coup in Myanmar. Over the past 730 days, the citizens of Myanmar have faced increasing brutality at the hands of the junta as the early days of democracy have evaporated into autocracy, punctuated by the most severe atrocities. 

While the eyes of the world have refocused elsewhere, attacks on civilians have continued and worsened. Multiple military bombardments on hospitals have gone unreported in the world media, while the government health system has collapsed in its entirety.  

Where doctors and nurses led the initial wave of resistance against the military, they faced specific and violent persecution, driving them away from their communities and into hiding. While many continue to provide care – often beyond their trained roles – in underground clinics as part of an increasingly organised ‘parallel health system’, they do so at great risk of retribution. To date, there are 624 healthcare workers who remain in arbitrary detention, while at least 55 have been killed. (1)  

The impact of the collapse of the healthcare system on children is particularly acute. Childhood immunisation rates have plummeted since 2021, with an estimated 1.9 million children in need of a targeted vaccine catch-up programme. Many international actors providing immunisation support are unable to operate freely in the country, where humanitarian access is often tied to the tacit approval of the junta.  

Limited humanitarian access has also resulted in broad regional variance in medical supplies, with the military purposefully withholding limited aid from the ethnic regions. This represents a significant risk for the population, where preventable diseases are allowed to flourish and take the lives of children. Previously controlled diseases such as polio, measles, and diphtheria are highly likely to resurge, posing a threat to vulnerable groups, neighbouring countries and global reduction targets. UNICEF reports an estimated measles vaccination rate of 2%. 

This situation is exacerbated by a vacuum of inaccurate data and internet access. Internal reporting of disease outbreaks is severely impeded, as is international access.

This limited access, alongside internet blackouts and limited satellite connectivity, prevents the timely reporting of atrocities and the ability of healthcare workers to seek treatment guidance and resources where they’re now often forced to practice beyond the roles they trained for and without the support of colleagues.  

Since the coup, institutions and individuals in the UK have joined together to become the Health Partnerships for Myanmar group, convened by THET. This group has worked together to provide much-needed medical education, guidance and support for health workers in Myanmar. Through coordination and dedication, this group, alongside the diaspora in the UK, has enabled nurses, junior doctors, GPs and specialists to access resources and training to support their practice.   

While since May 2021, the UK government has provided modest funding to support this work, more action is needed as the crisis deepens. The UK government has shown global leadership through sanctions and at the UN Security Council, but there is a need to now place health and health workers at the centre of all conversations. Integral to greater coordinated international action is a deeper understanding of the situation by global partners – recognising the consequences of the specific persecution of health workers.  

The Health Partnerships for Myanmar group is collectively asking the UK government to continue and further develop its support for humanitarian access, satellite coverage and greater recognition of the dire status of health and human rights in Myanmar within global forums. The recent Security Council resolution on Myanmar is a step in the right direction. Now is the time for the international community to recognise the urgent need to take action and avert further preventable suffering.  

It is crucial that health is at the heart of that conversation. The most basic human rights of many of the citizens of Myanmar have already been brutally removed and as the violent oppression continues unabated, the global community must prioritise the needs of innocent citizens before even more lives are claimed.  

This post was written by:

Alex Rutherford - Policy and Learning Officer, THET


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