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Double Reeling Impact of COVID-19

Myanmar, an emerging economy in Southeast Asia, seemed to have little or no involvement in previous deadly viral diseases such as SARS, MERS and H1N1, which might be due to the country’s relatively low trade in the region in those days, but, in the event of Covid-19, the country is experiencing significant impacts.

Evidently, Myanmar did relatively well in the face of the first wave. The government’s response to Covid-19 was similar to other countries’ using movement restriction and lockdown and curfew orders which effectively saved human lives. “We managed to control Covid-19 with all the capacity we have in the first wave when only 174 people were shown positive and deaths from Covid-19 were rare,” told Khin Khin Gyi, a spokesperson of the Ministry of Health to Myanmar Insider. First wave days were so united that cooperation went hand in hand, from the central government to the state government to the healthcare workers and to the people at a maximum point and as a result domestic infections were hardly found.

In the second week of August 2020 when restrictions from the first wave in many parts were being eased, the country went through a spike in infection rates, the epicentre of which was in Sittwe region, Rakhine State and continued on as a rapid and widespread domestic transmission in the rest states and districts especially growing in Yangon region. As of October 30th, there are over 50,000 cases and over 1,000 deaths with new 1,000 infections each day adding to the list. Death rate becomes high reaching to 30 deaths on average each day. Majority of deaths come from patients with underlying conditions and elderly people.

“Cases from the second wave are still increasing. We have to see this second wave as a reminder that there could be the third, fourth and fifth time, waves after waves. As the health ministry, we will do everything we need to contain the transmission and reduce new infections each day and that’s what we are affordable now. It is also too hard for us to tell the exact time when cases will fall again. So people are required to cooperate with us to fight Covid-19,” added Khin Khin Gyi.

Myanmar has a fragile healthcare system with the least investment from the government before the pandemic. When faced with massive Covid-19 infections, it would exacerbate the challenges from the pandemic. Challenges may include limited availability of ICU units, low capacity of healthcare workers and a small number of quarantine centres. Despite loopholes existing within the system, local physicians are fighting the disease at their best efforts for days and nights. According to WHO statistics released in 2015, there are only over 30,000 physicians for 54 million population across the country. Not knowing how far the country can withstand the disease with such limited human power in healthcare, Covid-19 now exposed frontline workers. The World Bank said in a statement released in March that Myanmar barely has one intensive care bed for every 100,000 people. In fact, it is a very depressing situation for people’s health because only one ventilator is available for 200,000 people.

Thus, the government took proactive actions by imposing three consecutive stay-at-home orders to gain control over spreading. However, a controllable state is yet to be seen when getting a thousand new cases each day. To reduce the infection toll, healthcare workers will encourage people to practice preventive measures and stay at home as possible because frontline workers are taking full responsibility for dealing with the disease at the frontline by betting their lives without much consideration of capacity. 

“The key difficulty is that people should not go outside carelessly. The virus is already in the air. Your family can become a victim to Covid-19 once you lose attention to taking prevention actions and may contract with the virus from improper ways of wearing masks, touching your face and eyes and avoiding social distancing. People are required to prevent themselves in a responsible way. As for healthcare workers, we are working hard and will keep doing so to protect their lives,” continued Khin Khin Gyi. The second wave pandemic is tiring out the existing healthcare workforce with uncertain hope for a controlled stage.

On the other hand, the government’s adoption of lockdown measures to contain the disease in the first wave protected lives, indeed the economy has suffered and its workforce has faced the worst impacts of the disease. Workers are being negatively impacted by being laid off or reduced salary or being furloughed. Informal workers might be able to withstand disruptions and lockdown measures in the first wave like something never happened before, however, they are now double-troubled- fear of disease and fear of loss of income- which leaves them in a great deal of uncertainty. In the event of a second wave, it is hardly possible for low skilled informal workers to stay at home and follow the rules even though they know they can die of Covid-19 because the informal sector has been hardest hit in the second wave.

A Myanmar living conditions survey, released in 2019 with the support of the World Bank and the UNDP, estimates that 30% of Myanmar people are living on 1,600 Kyats per day and are considered being poor. Earnings from 40% of the population classified as the poorest- associated with wage labour- account for 22% of the total income of the country. In fact, casual labour make up such a low-income group of up to 40%. 

A casual worker, Aung Win, told Myanmar Insider, “people like us who are living on daily wages cannot have emergency savings because we are feeding our families with all the wage we earned each day. It is impossible for us to stay inside. We have basic needs to cover including rent. We’re also not happy to break the rules but we cannot let our families go starve.”

Hampered economic activities as a consequence of lockdown measures are threatening the survival of many urban poor but also rural poor. Covid-19 is negatively affecting different layers of the workforce, however, the low-income group is the most vulnerable to the impact and consequences from small to large scale. When the government penalizes people who break the rules during the lockdown, it is to keep in mind that disciplines are set to control Covid-19 spreads. The president’s office stated that there were over 8,000 individuals charged with Covid-19 rule violation till mid-June. It is indisputable that the government pledge for Covid-19 “Together as one and no one will get left behind” is still far away from needy people. The government provided cash and basic requirements per family equivalent to 70,000 Kyats to over 5 million lowest income households at the end of June.

As the saying goes “better late than never”, one should recognize the government assistance to poor households though it didn’t cover the full cost of impact from disruptions. Nobody can tell exactly when Covid-19 epidemic will end in Myanmar. The government will have to continue strict measures and introduce penalties in an attempt to prevent further Covid-19 waves. However, it also needs to ensure that the imposed penalties do not disproportionately affect the poor. 

Everyone is stuck in firefighting. At the union government level, the ministries are struggling to cushion the economic impacts by both fiscal and monetary response, at the same time dealing with short supply of equipment, spaces for inflicted people and professionals required for Covid-19 control. Frontline healthcare workers are exhausting their limits. So we can only imagine how Covid-19 is double troubling Myanmar people.

As of November 1, Myanmar reported a total 53,405 cases with 1,258 deaths and 34,189 recoveries.

Translated by Angela Lynn.