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July 13, 2021

Asia

MYANMAR: Could the generals’ pariah status lead to a humanitarian crisis?

BY Bob Herrera-Lim

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By the numbers alone, Myanmar is not among the worst hit by the pandemic in Southeast Asia; averaging daily numbers of 70 new cases per million and 1.1 deaths per million, it is faring better than Malaysia and Indonesia but worse than Thailand, the Philippines and Vietnam. However, both new case and fatality numbers are still rising steeply and could get substantially worse; the testing positivity rate, at 21.6%, is second only to Indonesia.

Myanmar’s data must be treated with more caution than the rest of Southeast Asia, however, with an undercount of Covid-19 numbers being likely. A substantial number of healthcare workers joined the civil disobedience movement, and how many have returned to work is difficult to determine. Some have been arrested or blacklisted on orders of the military. Testing capacity, as well as the overall healthcare system, are likely constrained. Last month, security forces arrested Htar Htar Lin, the doctor in charge of the vaccination program prior to the coup, and she has been charged with high treason. Media and the internet are monitored and face restrictions, which further limits reporting from across the country on how the border areas are doing and where the main outbreaks are occurring outside of Yangon. Distrust of the government manifests even in citizens’ willingness to submit to the healthcare system.

Yet even the limited data available indicates that the outbreak has worsened over the past four weeks and that medical care is very difficult to access. Reports of strained hospital capacity correlate with the anecdotes that also accompanied last year’s rise in daily case numbers to comparable levels of roughly 40 new cases per million per day in the Philippines and Indonesia. Bed capacity is now limited and there are reports that the sick are already being turned away by hospitals. However, the military has apparently ordered suppliers to reduce the volume of oxygen being sold at private retailers and redirect their capacity to hospitals — resulting in long lines for oxygen by those who are sick and self-isolating. Schools have been closed and the worst hit neighborhoods locked down.

The security situation makes it difficult to determine how effectively the government is responding to the month-long spike and whether it has the capacity to escalate its response if the situation were to worsen in the coming weeks. More importantly, with the junta politically isolated from the west, humanitarian aid flows might be constrained if the situation were to become more severe. ASEAN countries, China and Russia may be the more realistic option for the junta should it need more medical supplies, but that has its own political issues for the generals who have so far thumbed their noses at ASEAN.

Also, the uncertain status of the pandemic could lead to tighter border controls by its neighbors, further increasing the economic pain from the current spike and making it more difficult for medical aid to enter the country. China has already locked down one of its towns at the border with Myanmar, Ruili, after 59 new cases were reported in a week. Thailand has tightened its controls as well. Myanmar’s junta is sufficiently entrenched that it may be able to withstand the political and social fallout from a clumsy handling of the outbreak, but possibly at the cost of a humanitarian crisis.