Covid-19 stigma keeps Myanmar medical volunteers locked out of home

Medical volunteers putting on personal protective equipment before leaving their temporary base in Taungoo district, in Myanmar's Bago region, on Aug 7, 2021.
Medical volunteers putting on personal protective equipment before leaving their temporary base in Taungoo district, in Myanmar's Bago region, on Aug 7, 2021.PHOTO: AFP

TAUNGOO, MYANMAR (AFP) - A Buddhist monk and a budding sailor are among the outcasts squatting in an abandoned building in Myanmar while they help bury coronavirus victims and their worried families tell them to keep away.

A surge in infections across the country has been aggravated by a lack of formal medical care, with many hospitals empty of staff joining nationwide strikes against a February military coup.

Mr Thar Gyi, one of the 20-odd volunteers living in the building, has not been home to his family in almost three months after a patient he was transporting in his ambulance tested positive for the virus.

"Since then... they asked me not to come back. They sent my bags here," he told AFP in Taungoo, a few hours' drive north of commercial hub Yangon.

His team runs an ambulance service that transports sick patients and picks up bodies for cremation and burial.

At night, they return to the building - once part of the city's university, but now empty - to eat together, relax and play on their phones.

Mr Thar Gyi should be at sea or preparing for a voyage - he had secured a position with a Western shipping firm, but then the pandemic struck and put the job on hold.

Like most of the group, he has caught the virus and recovered, but his family still want him to stay away while he goes about his job as a corpse carrier.

"Even if I go back, I talk to them from the entrance without going inside the house," he said. "They cook whatever I want to eat. But they put it at the entrance of the house. They don't let me come in."

Fellow ambulance worker Kumara has been a monk for 17 years, but left his monastery to organise the volunteer group when the third wave of infections hit in June.

He has had the virus too and is keeping away from his fellow devotees, who, like most of the town, are wary of potential infection.

"People do not like ambulances parking in front of their house," he said. "They run away and cover their noses... They think our ambulance is carrying viruses."