What Matter No. 23
(This article is a translation of the original Burmese language version that ISP-Myanmar posted on its Facebook page on April 30, 2021.)
The people of Myanmar have been fighting against a military dictatorship since the coup of February 1 and paying the price for their struggle. Concurrently, the third wave of the global COVID-19 pandemic is threatening with a faster proliferation and higher mortality rate. In India, Myanmar’s western neighbor, more than 310,000 people were infected with the virus on April 21 alone. Thailand, another neighboring country, successfully controlled the first and second waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, but with the third wave thousands of people are infected every day. In Myanmar, the risk of another COVID-19 wave should not be underestimated. Extreme caution should be taken since COVID waves can have a high level of implication and negative impacts on the country’s political crisis and can worsen the situation. Issues related to the responses to the COVID-19 pandemic should not only be framed by political thinking. This is a matter that requires focused preparation.
∎ Key findings in brief
There have been two waves of outbreaks since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic at the end of 2019 and more than three million people have died and nearly 150 million infected. Although vaccines was developed after a year and a half, the virus has not yet been brought under control. The disaster not only threatens human health and well-being but also disturbs the flow of goods and causes workplace shutdowns and school closedowns due to disaster management measures.
In addition to difficulties in receiving vaccinations and accessing health services, people started facing other health issues, consequently, other socio-economic impacts have started damaging the lives of individuals. For this reason, when approaching the disasters caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, scholars and practitioners suggest it is important to take into consideration all the aspects of health, economy, society, and politics of a country.
Research shows that since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, political thinking has influenced everything from formulating prevention policies to current vaccine production and distribution. When thinking about issues related to response to the pandemic from a political point of view, people portray the actions that must be taken to prevent the pandemic as symbols that support or oppose a party or an organization. For instance, in some Western countries, including the United States, there has been a perception that wearing a face mask means supporting a particular rival party and being vaccinated means the person is weak in thier personal political stand. In fact, not all the actions preventing the pandemic should be framed exclusively from the perspective of politics. People should follow the scientific findings and abide by public health guidelines related to the COVID-19 pandemic response. The measures taken for pandemic prevention must be taken into consideration and prepared based on human security which covers all the health, political, economic, social and national security issues of a country.
∎ Why does it matter?
While Myanmar was not affected by the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, it did not escape the second wave. As of April 29, the number of infected reached 142,800 people and 3,209 died. Among the people who were screened between March 23, 2020 and April 29, 2020, more than 5.55 percent were infected by the coronavirus and the death toll was 2.25 percent. Now, the third wave of the pandemic has reached countries near to Myanmar. In addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, the people of Myanmar are simultaneously facing a political catastrophe in which they are under the fierce oppression of dictators and their life and property are under threat. While the political crisis continues, people have instigated campaigns that concentrate on politics and ignore the disaster caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. By approaching the COVID-19 issue only from the perspective of politics, some people are no longer following the restrictions and guidelines of an effective COVID-19 pandemic response. Moreover, some of the general population has even called for people to not get vaccinated. People in Myanmar currently feel obligate to participate in risky behavior and sacrifice for political movements. At the same time, armed conflicts and violence are escalating across the country. In addition, interrogation camps and prisons of the coup government are already overcrowded making them dangerous transmission areas for the virus. People are fleeing their homes because of the oppression of the military dictatorship which is increasing the number of refugees and internally displaced persons (IDPs) across the country . The deteriorating healthcare system and bureaucratic mechanisms have weakened the country’s resiliency to the pandemic. If the disastrous pandemic strikes again at such a calamitous time, it could be a serious blow to the country. For this reason, this issue of politics and the response to the COVID-19 pandemic is an important matter for Myanmar.
∎ Is it relevant to Myanmar?
The February 1 military coup d’état has had a profound effect on the COVID-19 control and prevention activities in the country, with the original planned prevention and vaccination program disrupted. During the three month period before the military coup, the government was able to screen 1,682,912 people for COVID-19 testing. The infection rate was 4.94 percent. However, in the three months after the military coup, only 87,358 people were screened and the infection rate was found to be 1.43 percent. Although the rate of infection appears to have dropped, the size of the screening sample for testing dropped to almost 90 percent (only 10.8 percent were tested) during this period. Last January, despite a vaccination program launched by the National League for Democracy (NLD) party-led government, that planned to provide 1.5 million COVID-19 vaccines, the dreams of the people were dashed because of the military coup. Earlier this year, Myanmar received 3.5 million covidshield vaccines from India and vaccinated 1.54 million people for the first time. In the second-round of vaccinations after the coup, only 0.34 million people were vaccinated, showing public interest in the vaccine had obviously declined.
This is fundamental because it shows that the majority of people do not accept the coup d’état and are unwilling to cooperate with the military junta. In addition, the health workers and volunteers – those who served as front-line fighters of the pandemic – have become the leading mass of the anti-military dictatorship movement. Moreover, between at least 50 percent to more than 75 percent of health workers have taken part in the civil disobedience movement (CDM). As a result of the Special Administration Council’s (SAC’s) arrest, detention, and trial of CDM participants, it will not be easy to restore the health care system to the level in place before the military coup. At present, the military council has publicly issued arrest warrants and requested public collaboration to arrest more than 250 health workers, including medical doctors, under penal code Section 505 (a). Many were detained and imprisoned. These measures taken by the military council have had a devastating effect on the already fragile health care system of the country.
As a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) warned that nearly half the population or about 25 million Myanmar people could be plunged into poverty before the year 2022.
Regarding the third wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Myanmar is simultaneously facing issues of how to prevent the third wave and issues related to the vaccination of the population. Preventing the third wave of the pandemic will likely be much more difficult than when the country faced the first and second waves of the pandemic before the coup in terms of international assistance, cooperation of the public, and having enough health workers. For vaccination, a wide range of methodologies need to be taken into account besides the consideration of defying the military dictatorship. It is very dangerous if all the respective sides and organizations dealing with the COVID-19 pandemic are focusing and shaping issues related to the pandemic only from the single point of view of politics. For example, international medical science has provided a basic assurance that vaccination procedures are safe, so campaigns against the vaccination should not be instigated. Moreover, in areas under the control of minority ethnic armed organizations, as well as in other parts of the country, vaccination should be given to all those who have the opportunity to be vaccinated if it meets with the basic health standards. In this regard, the policies and capabilities of various organizations at all levels, including the National Unity Government (NUG), also play an important role. Therefore, all the respective stakeholders need to consider and prepare for COVID-19 pandemic prevention and access to vaccines for all. They should face this disastrous pandemic not only from a political point of view but also from a comprehensive human security perspective. The people of Myanmar do not deserve a military dictatorship and they should also not have to bear the burdens of this catastrophe.