As Covid-19 rages in Myanmar, army hoards oxygen, say doctors

Military also accused of stopping charities from giving oxygen to those who need it

People waiting to fill up empty oxygen canisters outside a factory in Yangon on Wednesday. Doctors say the military is trying to ensure the scarce oxygen supply is funnelled to its own hospitals, which cater to army families. Denying oxygen to privat
People waiting to fill up empty oxygen canisters outside a factory in Yangon on Wednesday. Doctors say the military is trying to ensure the scarce oxygen supply is funnelled to its own hospitals, which cater to army families. Denying oxygen to private clinics and citizens has prematurely ended hundreds of lives, medical workers say.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

YANGON • First, the junta stole Myanmar's elected leaders from the people. Now, doctors say, the generals have taken the oxygen that some citizens need to breathe.

As the Delta variant of the coronavirus rampages through Myanmar, the military, which seized power in a February coup, has ordered that lifesaving oxygen be denied to private clinics, say medical workers. The clinics are staffed largely by doctors who oppose the army's takeover and refuse to work in state hospitals. Basic care for Covid-19 patients has been turned into an illegal act, said Dr Min Han.

The military has also prevented people from buying supplies from oxygen producers, whom it accuses of price-gouging, forcing desperate families to defy the army in order to save sick relatives. And it has stopped charities from giving oxygen to people who need it, witnesses and charity workers say.

Doctors say the military is trying to ensure the scarce oxygen supply is funnelled to its own hospitals, which cater to army families.

Denying oxygen to private clinics and citizens has prematurely ended hundreds of lives, medical workers say, adding a cruel political dimension to an escalating health crisis. Thousands more are at imminent risk of dying, they say.

And with the junta having apparently reserved much of the vaccine supply for its loyal ranks, there is little hope that Myanmar's Covid-19 outbreak, by far its worst yet, will end anytime soon.

"An explosion of Covid-19 cases, including the Delta variant, the collapse of the healthcare system, and the deep mistrust of the people of Myanmar of anything connected to the military junta are a perfect storm of factors that could cause a significant loss of life... without emergency assistance by the international community," Mr Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said on Wednesday.

Public anger towards the army - which has shot dead hundreds of people protesting against the coup, as well as children and other bystanders - has only hardened.

"I wonder if the military is trying to survive by making it so there are no people left in the country," said Mandalay resident Ko Thein Zaw. He and his wife were married just before the putsch. When his wife tested positive for Covid-19 this month, he scrambled to secure oxygen tanks for her. He could not find enough. On July 12, she died, gasping for breath.

"My wife died because of the coup and because the military is trying to destroy everything good for the people," said Mr Ko Thein Zaw, who is now sick with Covid-19 himself. "Myanmar is a nation in which there are many ways to die."

On Wednesday, 7,083 people tested positive for Covid-19 and 145 died, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. Medical experts say such official numbers are a fraction of the real caseload, given the shortage of testing and record-keeping.

In an alarming sign of how widespread the outbreak is, more than 34 per cent of those tested had the disease. By contrast, the seven-day average positivity rate in the United States from late June to early July was 2.7 per cent.

Meanwhile, soldiers have been disrupting oxygen supply lines. On Monday, security forces in Yangon sprayed gunfire at a line of people waiting to buy oxygen. Asked about the incident, a health official said the people were disobeying lockdown orders.

In Mawlamyine, charity worker Ko Naing Win said soldiers had arrived this week demanding to know how he had imported oxygen from neighbouring Thailand. They told him to stop or face jail, he said.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 17, 2021, with the headline 'As Covid-19 rages in Myanmar, army hoards oxygen, say doctors'. Subscribe