Features | Politics | Southeast Asia

How One Myanmar Village is Fighting the COVID-19 Outbreak

Without any support from the military regime, hundreds of thousands of villages in Myanmar are crying out for help.

How One Myanmar Village is Fighting the COVID-19 Outbreak

Buddhist novice monks wearing face masks walk past a COVID-19 awareness sign as they collect morning alms, July 15, 2021, in Yangon, Myanmar.

Credit: AP Photo/Thein Zaw

I was born and raised in a village in the Mandalay Region of central Myanmar. I spent 14 years of my life there, and completed my primary and secondary education in the village school. In this article, I am sharing how my native village is managing Myanmar’s devastating third wave of COVID-19 under the country’s dysfunctional military regime, what challenges the village is facing, and what forms of assistance it need to control the outbreak.

I hope this article can offer different insights on the lived realities of the COVID-19 third wave in Myanmar and let international aid providers know how challenging the situation has become in the context of the country’s political crisis.

On February 1, Myanmar’s military overthrew the elected government, prompting mass protests across the country. The ensuing crackdown by the security forces killed more than 900 civilians. Another 5,000 people remain in detention. The political crisis was followed in short order by an economic crisis and a healthcare catastrophe. The country’s third major wave of COVID-19 infections started in early June. Despite initial warnings  of an impending outbreak, the military continued to press schools to open and pressured civil servants who were defying the junta to come back to work. The junta’s failing institutions, coupled with the generals’ lack of willingness to react promptly to the healthcare crisis, led to a surge in the COVID-19 tally in June and July. Both the number of infections and deaths skyrocketed.

The numbers reported to the World Health Organization, and available through data platforms such as Our World in Data, offer a misleading impression of COVID-19’s spread in Myanmar. The real picture is much worse. Most positive cases tested in local community centers or at home are not reported. The same also applies to COVID-19 deaths.

My native village, whose name I have chosen to withhold for fear of retaliation by the military junta, is inhabited by 1,452 villagers living in 355 households. The village administrator was recently appointed by the military regime. Despite the COVID-19 outbreak in major cities like Yangon and Mandalay, the junta-appointed administrator took no measures to contain the possible outbreak in the village, and so the task of handling the COVID-19 outbreak in the village fell into the hands of the villagers themselves.

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First of all, they began systematically testing the village for COVID-19, and tried to buy as many test kits as they could. Under the leadership of the village’s head monk, on July 22, they tested all villagers who reported feeling sick or unwell. Out of 28 tested, 11 villagers tested positive for COVID-19. On July 24, another round of testing was carried out among close contacts of the positive cases. Out of the 22 tested, seven were found positive. On July 27, a further round of close contacts was tested, and nine out of 25 tested returned positive results.

The first major challenge the village encountered was locating and securing an adequate supply of rapid test kits, personal protective equipment (PPE), facemasks, body bags, hand sanitizers. The national outbreak led to an immediate shortage of medical supplies, even in the cities. For small villages, getting enough medicine and PPE was all the more challenging. Fortunately, a student from our village who was living and studying in the city had a contact there, who thereafter became the sole buyer of the medicine, test kits, and PPE that the village needed. Even then, the supply from Mandalay took some time; supplies could only be transported to the village on the irregular occasions when a truck made its way to Mandalay and back again. But our village was lucky to have a buyer in the city. Most other villages lack even the ability to test how many of their inhabitants are infected by COVID-19, allowing the disease to tear through their most vulnerable populations.

The second major challenge is obtaining the money to buy the necessary supplies. A number of people from the village work in foreign countries such as South Korea and China, most as low-paid migrant workers. Out of the savings they set aside each month, many of these people have chosen to remit money to the village for COVID-19 aid, at the expense of their remittance to their families.

Does the village receive the same amount as they remit? No. Many different remittance agents and channels are used, each of which extracts a hefty transaction fee, in large part due to the parlous state of Myanmar’s banking sector, a direct result of the military takeover. All of these fees would have been avoidable if the coup did not break down the banking sector.

For now, the remittance donations are the sole and major source of money to buy medicine, test kits, and PPE, and to cure the sick. But the village won’t always be able to rely on remittances from workers abroad. Can the villagers themselves contribute to the COVID-19 fund? Possibly not. There has been barely any productive economic activity since the coup, and the crop value has dropped substantially since February, according to a recent report from the World Bank, alongside increasing prices of food and other basic necessities. So most farmers will make a loss this harvest season, meaning that in the next few months, the village may run short of the funds, increasing the risk of an uncontainable outbreak.

A third major challenge is village politics. As mentioned, the village administrator was appointed by the military’s State Administration Council (SAC), and avoided the responsibility of taking action to contain COVID-19. The responsibility to contain the massive outbreak – including testing, isolating, contact-tracing and curing the sick – therefore fell into the hands of the village monk and volunteer youths. All of them are in the pro-democracy camp, and some of the healthcare workers who helped with the testing were dismissed by the SAC for taking part in the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement.

The battle for political legitimacy at the level of the village administration is complicated. Politics can be dirty at times. While the village monk, the volunteers, and the healthcare workers dismissed by SAC regime are now working relentlessly to test, isolate the positive cases, and cure the sick, they face the constant threat of retaliation from the SAC-appointed administrators and other informants. Not all of these are personal threats per se. Rather, threats come in the form of who has the right to use vital village infrastructure such as schools and medical facilities.

In this situation, the SAC-appointed administrator made no attempt to contain the outbreak, yet he claims that he is in a position to authorize the use of such infrastructure. Meanwhile, the youth volunteers, most of whom are pro-democracy, do not want to engage with the administrator. Thus, the head monk needs to step in and engage with the SAC-appointed administrator in order to allow the use of village schools as ad hoc quarantine and healthcare facilities. The villagers were finally given the green light on July 24. Even then, the volunteers and healthcare workers receive no further support from the administrator.

For an international aid provider, these intra-village legitimacy and political battles may not be visible. However, this is the reality of how the battle against COVID-19 is playing out at the grassroots level in Myanmar.

As I mentioned above, people living in the village have limited financial and technical resources. They cannot test every single member of the community. The most that can be done is to control the close contacts of known positive cases, to educate the villagers about the virus, and to provide support for families in quarantine. In our case, the head monk took the lead in these efforts.

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A team of volunteers was dispatched to every household to distribute facemasks and hand sanitizers and educate people on other measures, including physical distancing, the disposal of used facemasks, and other measures that need to be strictly followed. Before the dispatch of the volunteers, they invited a doctor to educate the volunteers via Zoom meetings. However, compliance with physical distancing remains a challenge, suggesting that simply educating the people is not enough. Villagers are still figuring out how to enforce safe-distancing requirements as much as they can.

Myanmar is dying now. The number of reported cases vastly underestimates the extent of the outbreak. The scale and the intensity is a whole new level on the ground. In this article, I am calling on the international community to help Myanmar in the right way in order to relieve the suffering of millions of people and their families.

The case of my native village indicates that the military’s SAC, which recently rebranded itself as a “caretaker government,” is making little attempt to relieve the COVID-19 outbreak. For now, the people of Myanmar have nobody to rely on. My village has only limited resources, and there are hundreds of thousands of villages in Myanmar that have even less. International aid should be offered directly to low levels of government – the village – and should engage with those who are fighting for the lives of their loved ones, a duty that the SAC and its associates have shown little ability or willingness to perform.