Amid COVID-19 Crisis, UK Calls for Humanitarian Pause in Myanmar

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Amid COVID-19 Crisis, UK Calls for Humanitarian Pause in Myanmar

The country currently faces a fatal combination of political upheaval, stalled vaccination efforts, and escalating outbreaks of the virus.

Amid COVID-19 Crisis, UK Calls for Humanitarian Pause in Myanmar
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The United Kingdom has called for an immediate and sustained pause in clashes and unrest in Myanmar, in order to allow the country to carry out COVID-19 vaccinations.

After a closed meeting of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) yesterday, James Kariuki, Britain’s deputy U.N. ambassador said a humanitarian pause was necessary if the country was to get a handle on a devastating outbreak of the virus.

“The U.K. is calling for an immediate and sustained humanitarian pause to allow vaccines to get to all in need, and for medical and humanitarian staff to work without fear or attack,” Kariuki told reporters.

Kariuki’s call for a humanitarian pause was seconded by U.N. special envoy Christine Schraner Burgener, who also called on the country’s contending parties to allow a vaccination campaign “to go forward through all available avenues in the country.”

Kariuki said that the call for a strong international response to the country’s COVID-19 crisis was supported by Brunei’s Second Foreign Minister Erywan Yusof, the newly appointed special envoy for Myanmar from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), who joined yesterday meeting virtually.

Since the military’s takeover on February 1, Myanmar has descended into turmoil, with the country’s creditable COVID-19 containment efforts and vaccination plans coming to a virtual halt. The junta’s health authorities had confirmed 356,985 cases as of August 16. The real figure is probably much worse, given the reports of severe oxygen shortages – and the hoarding of these vital supplies by the military junta – that have emerged from the country.

Other anecdotal evidence also suggests that things are much worse than the official figures suggest. This week, The Irrawaddy reported that around 100 prominent Myanmar figures – including politicians, artists, journalists, architects, and physicians – have died from COVID-19 and from the wider collapse of the public health system after the military’s seizure of power.

Among the deceased are Nyan Win, a spokesperson and legal adviser to the formerly ruling National League for Democracy, the pioneering poet Aung Cheimt, and the modernist sculptor Sonny Nyein.

Meanwhile, Our World in Data tracker has reported no new vaccine data for Myanmar since June 5, by which point a paltry 3.4 percent of the population had received at least one dose of vaccine, placing it in a  distant last place among Southeast Asian nations.

“Prior to the coup, Myanmar had a strong vaccination record and was developing a COVID-19 plan,” Kariuki said. “Now, Myanmar’s health system is barely functioning, unacceptable attacks on hospitals, doctors, and nurses continue, and only 3 percent of the population are vaccinated.”

During the meeting, U.N. deputy humanitarian chief Ramesh Rajasingham “outlined what is basically a collapsing health care system, resurging wave of the virus, increased hostilities and violence, (and) significant displacement,” U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told the press.

Whether the military junta is willing to declare a truce with the anti-coup forces in order to allow vaccinations to proceed, however, remains open to question. It has already shown its willingness to “weaponize” COVID-19 “by hoarding medical supplies for itself and its cronies and denying treatment to those who do not support it,” according to the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar.

It is thus hard to see it acceding to any form of compromise that confers any form of legitimacy on groups and individuals it perceives as enemies – indeed, “terrorists” – unless the situation in Myanmar deteriorates even further.