Yangon residents barricade their neighbourhoods against second Covid-19 wave

People walking past a makeshift barricade blocking a street in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sept 12, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

YANGON - The makeshift barriers are assembled from wooden planks, pieces of bamboo or metal pipes.

Signs on them warn that "one will be charged under local law if one breaks the rules" and "only residents' vehicles (are) allowed to enter".

They are guarded around the clock by volunteers or security staff hired by Yangon residents, who are taking matters into their own hands amid Myanmar's escalating Covid-19 outbreak.

"I cannot say for sure how effective this will be," says Mr Kyaw Swar, a resident who was guarding his neighbourhood in Mingalar Taung Nyunt township on Monday.

"But at least this can make people stay home during this 'stay home period'."

Myanmar has seen a worrying spike of well over 200 coronavirus infections daily and has logged 3,821 infections and 40 deaths as of 8pm on Wednesday (Sept 16). At least 15 patients have died since Monday morning.

Although this second Covid-19 wave originated in Rakhine state last month, most new infections are now surfacing in Yangon, Myanmar's commercial capital.

Neighbouring China and Thailand have tightened restrictions at their border to avoid imported infections.

Most of Yangon's urban townships have been put under "stay home" orders, with residents allowed to leave homes only to work, buy groceries or seek medical help. Domestic travel is banned.

Campaigning for Myanmar's Nov 8 general election kicked off last week, but the military-aligned Union Solidarity and Development Party and other smaller parties have appealed for the polls to be postponed.

Yet the ruling National League for Democracy, which is widely expected to win, warned that an election delay would heap political difficulties on top of the health and economic crisis.

Any delay would be announced by the election commission only next month.

"Conditions in Yangon are very risky. Within 12 days, 20 people died," Dr Khin Khin Gyi, director of the Contagious Disease Prevention and Eradication Division at the health and sports ministry, told The Straits Times.

"We have to be very cautious."

Myanmar's main Covid-19 treatment centres are almost full. Over 4,000 people are being tested daily, which is the maximum testing capacity at present, said Dr Khin Khin Gyi.

Temporary hospitals are being erected on sports grounds and an existing housing complex.

In the meantime, the barriers erected by Yangon's residents are turning the city's grid-like public streets into a maze of dead ends. Some residents stop all outsiders, including street vendors, from entering their wards.

Men constructing a barricade to block off their street, to prevent the spread of Covid-19, in Yangon, Myanmar, on Sept 12, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

This situation is particularly challenging to food delivery cyclist Aung Ko Ko.

"When they don't allow me to enter the street, I have to find some other route to reach the destination. It is very difficult for me because I only earn 600 or 700 kyats (60 to 70 Singapore cents) for some deliveries and the fee is too low for all this work," he told The Straits Times.

Taxi driver Zin Min, who has seen his daily income drop to about a quarter of the pre-pandemic average, has had to double his asking price for trips because short cuts through backstreets are now difficult to make.

Not all passengers are willing to pay.

"Some passengers understand the situation and they get off at the front gate," he said. "Some insist that I enter the street and I have to argue with the guards for long."

The Asian Development Bank expects Myanmar's economy to grow just 1.8 per cent for the fiscal year ending Sept 30, but bounce back to 6 per cent in the subsequent year through support from agriculture, higher government spending, and expansion in the telecommunication industry.

But it warned that future investment flows could be affected should the global economy stay depressed.

Additional reporting by Aye De Par Naing

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