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The photo shows health workers carrying a coffin bearing the remains of a COVID victim who died at home in Tedim, western Chin state, Myanmar
Myanmar's health system easily became overwhelmed by COVID, having to deal with thousands of new infections dailyImage: Tedim Post/AFP

COVID and the coup: Myanmar in the grip of double crisis

Maung Bo Yangon
July 26, 2021

Myanmar has one of the weakest health care systems in the world, and the combined effect of COVID and a military coup has stretched it to a point of total collapse.


About four months before the third wave of the coronavirus struck Myanmar, killing hundreds of people daily, Soe Moe Naung (name changed), a businessman, posted on social media that he and his family had gotten vaccinated at a public inoculation center.     

He also urged his fellow citizens to get the shots.

But the message drew strong rebuke and name-calling, forcing Soe Moe Naung to temporarily hide the post.

His critics believe that getting vaccinated legitimizes, in some ways, the military coup in February that led to the overthrow of the democratically elected government led by Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy (NLD) party.

Soe Moe Naung, himself a supporter of the NLD, at the time explained the reasons why he agreed to receive the shots. "The vaccines were acquired by the NLD government for the people of Myanmar. It is a citizen's right… vaccination is a different issue and is not related to politics."

Soe Moe Naung may be pragmatic, but his views are shared only by a minority of people in Myanmar.

Defying the military by not getting vaccinated

Since the coup on February 1, many people all across Myanmar have been refusing to receive vaccines as an act of defiance against the military.  

"My mother, despite her old age, did not get vaccinated, probably because her son, my brother, said 'the revolution is not over,'" Hnin Yee Aung, a middle-aged woman from Yangon (name changed), told DW.

Myanmar cries out for oxygen

Her brother is a doctor working at a public hospital and has been participating in the civil disobedience movement (CDM) for months.

Some others have chosen not to get vaccinated out of fear of blowback from pro-democracy groups and ostracism. Those who got vaccinated have often become victims of a social media backlash involving naming and shaming.  

Many in the health care sector were among the first to stop working and join the CDM against the military.

Other public sector employees followed suit, dealing a huge blow to the administration and prompting the junta to ramp up pressure on government workers to return to work.

While the military started to arrest dissident health care professionals, many of them went into hiding.

Some doctors affiliated to the CDM initially treated patients in private establishments, but stopped after witnessing the deployment of soldiers and police near their private clinics.

COVID meets a weak and overwhelmed health system

This meant that when the third wave of COVID struck, Myanmar's widely hated military was left in charge to tackle the crisis with a health care system that was facing major shortages in terms of not only essential drugs and equipment but also medical workers.   

The system was soon overwhelmed by the scale of the emergency, with thousands of new infections and rising deaths.

On July 25 alone, 355 people died due to COVID-related illnesses and the total death toll now stands at over 7,100, according to official data, which only takes into consideration deaths in hospitals. 

The chief of the military, Min Aung Hlaing, recently issued a public appeal to dissident health care professionals to return to work, saying that all health care workers should work together to tackle the COVID emergency. 

CDM-affiliated health workers, however, have rejected the call, triggering social media memes like: "We will come back when you go back to your barracks," calling on the military to abandon the coup and return power to the democratically elected government. 

Pressure on the people again

Myanmar already has one of the weakest health care systems in the region, and the combined effect of COVID and the coup has stretched it to a point of total collapse.

In recent weeks, there have been severe shortages of medical oxygen at hospitals, with disturbing images circulating of desperate relatives scrambling to secure oxygen supplies for their loved ones.

In an open letter to the international community, Myanmar's National Unity Government (NUG), formed by opponents of the coup to create an internal government-in-waiting, pointed out that "there are growing reports on the shortage of oxygen, as well as the blatant and inhumane seizure of oxygen production facilities by security forces."

Accusations have also been leveled against security services that they often seize oxygen supplies and prevent people from securing them, allegations the military government says are false and politically motivated.

Junta controls soldiers' lives

In a recent meeting to assess the COVID situation, the junta chief said that the health emergency is being misused and misrepresented on social media for political gains, government-owned media reported.

Authorities also said that the government has imported adequate supplies of portable oxygen concentrators and other COVID-related equipment to meet the rise in demand.

Meanwhile, the public vaccination program resumed on July 25 after vaccines from China arrived recently. Pressure is again on the people who are yet to get their shots to decide whether to receive them or not.

"I will urge my mother to take vaccine shots this time. However, it is up to her and my family," Hnin Yee Aung said.

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