Distrustful of junta, turned away by hospitals, Myanmar's Covid-19 patients die at home

Volunteers carry the body of a Covid-19 victim in Hlegu Township in Yangon, on July 10, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

BANGKOK - On July 5, Mr Maung Min (not his real name) suddenly felt breathless and struggled to move his limbs. The 59-year-old military veteran was rushed by relatives to a public hospital in Yangon, only to be turned away because they had arrived "too late" in the afternoon.

The family tried a military hospital next. There, Mr Maung Min tested positive for Covid-19, along with all six accompanying relatives.

But the hospital would only admit him. His infected family members were told to go home, The Straits Times heard from his nephew, who declined to be named.

Mr Maung Min died the next day.

Family tragedies such as this one are playing out across Myanmar as the surge of Covid-19 infections ripping through South-east Asia ravages a country deep in political and economic crisis.

Only 60 per cent of Myanmar's Ministry of Health and Sports employees are working - by the ministry's own admission. Most of the rest are likely on strike, in a months-long bid to overthrow the military, which seized power on Feb 1.

Months of military repression has bred distrust in the healthcare system. In the weeks following the coup, troops attacked or occupied medical facilities treating anti-junta protesters. Covid-19 patients reached by ST say they are staying away from hospitals for fear of arrest, or simply because they know hospitals cannot cope with the surge in infections.

"In the first and second Covid-19 waves, patients did not have to worry about medicine, food and other medical supplies because there were many local donors. People helped people. People helped the government," said Mr Maung Min's nephew.

"Now, nobody wants to donate, not even water."

Junta spokesman Zaw Min Tun conceded in a press conference on Monday (July 12) that the situation was critical.

"The hospitals and clinics are filling up with patients. The quarantine centres are filling up with people," he said. "They can't accept any more patients."

He said the military was working to open its medical facilities to civilians.

Officially, the country logged 89 deaths and 5,014 new coronavirus cases on Monday, though this is dwarfed by comparison with the caseload in neighbouring Thailand, where the highly infectious Delta variant has pushed new daily Covid-19 infections to 8,656 on Tuesday (July 13).

But health experts say the severity of Myanmar's latest Covid-19 outbreak has been masked by low testing rates amid the political turmoil.

A doctor in Mandalay who is treating patients for free told ST: "It is difficult to know the exact number of Covid-19 patients because people don't get tested and don't go to the hospital. There are sick people in almost every house."

People stand with empty oxygen canisters as they wait to fill them up outside a factory in Yangon, on July 11, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

Medical staff are working with very little, she said, declining to be named for security reasons. "We need oxygen concentrators, ventilators, and space to isolate Covid-19 patients. We need a lot of hospital beds."

The World Health Organisation flagged the risk of a worsening outbreak in Myanmar as early as May, noting how "Covid-19-related activities on surveillance and contact tracing, laboratory testing, case management, and vaccinations are currently disrupted".

A vaccination drive started by the civilian government that centred on Indian-produced AstraZeneca vaccine was thrown into disarray by the coup. Last month, the regime announced it had arrested former immunisation chief Htar Htar Lin for allegedly working with the shadow government comprising ousted lawmakers and their allies.

So far, at least 3.5 million vaccine doses have been administered to Myanmar's 55 million people. China donated 500,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine in May. Junta chief Min Aung Hlaing says Russia has agreed to send Myanmar two million doses and also help the country produce vaccines.

In recent weeks, snaking queues were reported outside oxygen plants as growing numbers of caregivers sought to refill their tanks for Covid-19 patients at home. The junta ordered factories to direct their oxygen supplies towards government hospitals and Covid-19 treatment centres instead.

The health ministry explained that "unnecessary purchases" of oxygen were driving up its price, and advised against administering oxygen at home without medical supervision.

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing denied on Monday that Myanmar was running out of oxygen, saying instead that some parties were playing up the issue for political mileage.

But all this is cold comfort to Mr Aung Kyaw (not his real name), a farmer in Kalay township in north-western Myanmar near the Indian border.

Residents in Kalay were among the first to take up arms against the junta. They have been slapped with a stay-home order amid a surge of infections that has overwhelmed both hospitals and cemeteries.

Mr Aung Kyaw's elder sister, a nurse taking part in the civil disobedience movement (CDM), lost consciousness last month while watching television at home. Tests administered by her friends who are nurses showed that all six people living in her household were infected with Covid-19.

Volunteers carry a coffin containing the body of a Covid-19 victim before it is cremated in Bago, Myanmar, on July 8, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

"My sister is a CDM nurse from a public hospital. If she goes there, she will be arrested," he told ST.

The family is now being cared for at home by Mr Aung Kyaw's other sister, who is also infected with Covid-19. He spends his days queuing up to buy oxygen for them.

"People don't trust the junta's medical institutions, so they have to take care of themselves," he said. "There are charity associations which give free Covid-19 tests for sick people. But we have to find and buy the oxygen cylinders ourselves, with the help of people in our ward."

Grassroots associations are not sure how long they can sustain their work under current conditions.

"It's out of control," says Mr Khin Maung Tin, who runs a medical charity in Mandalay. "The hospitals are overloaded, so Covid-19 patients have to go back home. When they reach home, their oxygen level drops dramatically and they die. We take their bodies away."

He adds: "If you ask me, are you afraid of Covid-19, I will say, yes. But I can't be afraid because I need to help all these people."

• Additional reporting by Kyaw Za and Nyein Moe Aung

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