Doctors, nurses, firefighters and teachers boycott work in protest

Amid the turmoil caused by the military's seizure of power in Myanmar, Ms Khin (not her real name) found herself last Wednesday trying to arrange her elderly parents' visit to the hospital.

Both of them had just recovered from Covid-19 and needed to see a doctor for a follow-up check.

But when she called the hospital to confirm their appointment, she was told to stay home.

"The hospital staff told me not to go," the 46-year-old housewife told The Straits Times. "There was no doctor at the hospital."

Growing numbers of civil servants across Myanmar are boycotting work to protest against the Feb 1 coup and cripple the regime, now helmed by commander-in-chief Min Aung Hlaing.

They include teachers, air-traffic controllers, railway workers and firefighters.

But the most prominent group among them has been healthcare workers, spearheading Myanmar's year-long battle against the Covid-19 pandemic.

Medics kick-started the civil disobedience movement last week by donning red ribbons and walking away from their jobs.

It was no small decision, because the country is still battling the outbreak, which has killed at least 3,180 so far and infected more than 141,000 people.

Government doctors interviewed by ST said they felt torn between a duty to treat their patients - who often cannot afford treatment elsewhere - and a wish to oppose the military regime, which ousted the elected government led by Ms Aung San Suu Kyi.

They were also aware that the military - with its own hospitals and other health facilities for servicemen - would not be directly affected by their boycott.

"We know that the military doesn't need doctors like us to survive," said Dr Min Nyo, 33, a junior doctor based in Yangon.

"But we initiated this to motivate the other 'pillars' of this government, which are more essential for the military government to survive."

Their gamble has worked, hollowing mid-level ranks in the ministries in Naypyitaw as civil servants joined street protests in their uniforms.

The Ministry of Health and Sports is, perhaps, the hardest hit. It is trying to contain the pandemic while rolling out a mass vaccination programme.

The staff shortage has caused a plunge in testing rates for Covid-19, leading to just four cases logged on Monday, and 21 on Tuesday, compared with an average of 420 daily in the last week of January, according to Reuters.

In an appeal to health workers issued on Monday, the ministry said it appreciated the efforts of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers on the front line of the fight against Covid-19.

"As the vaccination programme for Covid-19 is being conducted for the public and real-time healthcare services are required for the people, all staff members at the respective departments under the Ministry of Health and Sports are strongly urged to return to their duties, taking the well-being of patients into consideration," said a note published in the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper.

Conscious of potential criticism, the civil disobedience movement on Sunday uploaded a series of videos on Twitter to explain why government doctors are boycotting work.

"These men and women did not abandon the lives of the common people through participation in the civil disobedience movement," presenters in medical scrubs said in the videos. "They are pioneering a movement they hope will inspire all civil workers who have always been the life and the blood of the Myanmar people."

Doctors in the boycott said they were redirecting the most urgent cases to private clinics where they are now volunteering.

Patients have so far taken it in their stride. Ms Thae Zar Chi Khaing, 29, who accompanied her partner to the Yangon Eye Hospital last Friday for a minor operation, said she was told that the hospital would close the next day, but noticed it continued to treat its most seriously ill patients.

"The doctors' campaign has put pressure on the military government which is good," she told ST.

"There may be some risks for people who cannot get immediate treatment, so we need to think of how we can handle these risks."

Ms Khin had no misgivings about the actions taken by the doctors.

"There are clinics we can still go to in our ward," she said. "This country is now facing a crisis, so we just need to bear with it."

Additional reporting by De Par and Nobel Zaw

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 11, 2021, with the headline 'Doctors, nurses, firefighters and teachers boycott work in protest'. Subscribe