04/03/2020, 15.22
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COVID-19: Myanmar at risk of health catastrophe

An international NGO warns that 350,000 people are at risk. Overcrowding in camps and a poor health system are making matters worse. Only 80 ventilators are available in the country. Limited data make it difficult to understand the real extent of the epidemic. Fear mixed with resignation prevail in the population. Some fear violence.

Yangon (AsiaNews) – The "risk" of a "health catastrophe" from the novel coronavirus pandemic is a real possibility in Myanmar, which has “only 80 ventilators,” essential to treat the most serious effects of the disease, a source, anonymous for security reasons, told AsiaNews.

This confirms what humanitarian NGOs and activists operating on the ground have being saying for some time. According to a report by Human Rights Watch (HRW), at least 350,000 internally displaced people in Myanmar are "sitting in the path of a public health catastrophe".

Overcrowding, movement restrictions and poor sanitation have left certain groups, like minorities, especially vulnerable to the coronavirus outbreak, HRW notes.

The situation for Myanmar’s 51 million people is critical. A large percentage of its population does not have access to basic healthcare.

For people in refugee camps, access to drinking water or other basic necessities is often an uphill battle.

Conditions in camps in Rakhine, Kachin, and northern Shan camps are already catastrophic; now the COVID-19 virus could “decimate these vulnerable communities," an HRW official said.

Sectarian violence has already forced tens of thousands of people to flee, many of them Rohingya Muslims, who have often been the victims of persecution by Burmese Buddhists.

"Overcrowding in the camps is pervasive, making physical distancing nearly impossible and significantly increasing the risk of transmission," the HRW report explained.

For the World Health Organisation (WHO), Myanmar has one of the worst healthcare systems in the world; decades of military dictatorship contributed to its collapse, except in Yangon and Mandalay, which have better facilities. 

For weeks, government authorities denied the presence of the coronavirus in a country that shares much of its northern border with China; hundreds of people cross the border every day, often illegally, for work.

Myanmar’s official COVID-19 toll is 20 confirmed cases and one death, but experts believe the real figure to be much higher.

“So far, there is little data in Myanmar to understand the real extent of the epidemic,” the source told AsiaNews. People are afraid and hardly go out anymore.”

Daily labourers are an issue. Should the virus spread “we’ll see a carnage,” which could trigger "a major increase in violence”.

Among ordinary people, fear is combined with a "sense of resignation,” explained the source. “Most don’t understand what is happening, and it is difficult now to evaluate the situation.”

At this critical juncture, the Church is organising itself and a number of its facilities have been made available to the authorities to receive people in quarantine.

Yesterday, Card Charles Bo took a hard stance against China’s Communist Party at fault for the pandemic.

For their part, the clergy and other religious “are preparing to deal with urgent needs", the source said, especially the needs of “those who have no work and will have nothing to feed their families with.”

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