CHIANG MAI – If Myanmar’s nominal leader Aung San Suu Kyi is to be believed, her country stands out as a global exception without a single reported case of Covid-19.
“Until now no one in our country is infected with Covid-19,” Suu Kyi said in a nationally televised address which to date remains the government’s official position.
Zaw Htay, a government spokesman, said at a March 14 press conference that “Covid-19 is still not present in Myanmar and there have been doubts about that. The government and the Ministry of Health are publishing true news…the lifestyle and diet of Myanmar citizens are beneficial against the coronavirus.”
That official assessment mirrored a March 6 Health Ministry press conference at which spokesperson Khin Khin Gyi said, “[China’s] Hubei province is 1,200 miles away from our country. This geographical factor is preventing the disease from spreading to us. We are fortunate.”
Expatriates are nonetheless fast fleeing the country, among them and to the dismay of many Bijay Karmacharya, the top official in charge of UN-Habitat in Myanmar, a program dedicated to human settlements and sustainable urban development.
He and others have reasonable cause to doubt the government’s assessment considering the limited number of people who have actually been tested. Moreover, health care facilities are almost non-existent in most rural areas and hospitals in towns are ill-equipped to handle a potential Covid-19 outbreak.
Myanmar shares a 2,100-kilometer border with China, the lethal and fast-spreading disease’s origin. Large numbers of people cross the Myanmar-China border formally and informally every day for trade and work.
As of March 22, Myanmar authorities said that 202 cases were “under investigation”, and that 187 had tested negative with lab results still pending for 15 tentatively suspected coronavirus infections.
At the same time, news reports spread on social media have surfaced about suspicious respiratory related deaths in various parts of the country.
Myanmar health authorities have been quick to deny that such deaths are Covid-19 related. At least 11 patients with symptoms indicative of the virus have died while under observation, including in Shan and Rakhine state and the Mandalay, Bago and Magway regions.
Authorities have claimed they died from other causes. But if as some suspect they were Covid-19 cases, then it would indicate the disease is spreading far and wide across the country and not as in other regional nations confined largely to major commercial centers.
“It’s not only the government that is in denial, but also many ordinary citizens,” said one Yangon-based resident.
When the popular 7Day News channel published a March 20 report about 20 mysterious deaths that occurred within a week in a village near Kutkai along the main trade route connecting Shan state to China, viewers posted in its comment column that such news should not be published even though it did not mention Covid-19.
They suggested such rumors aimed to destabilize Suu Kyi’s government and could cause national panic.
When health workers were eventually sent to the village, they concluded that all the deaths were not caused by Covid-19, though it was not clear from reports how or even if they conducted autopsies.
Like other regional countries, Myanmar has closed its land borders to foreigners to prevent the disease’s entry and spread.
All movie theaters nationwide will be closed until April 30, and quarantine sites at selected hospitals, meditation centers and even a boxing stadium have been established in Yangon and elsewhere.
Thingyan, the annual Budddhist New Year water festival in mid-April that attracts millions of water-throwing people nationwide, has also been cancelled as a Covid-19 related precaution.
But those restrictions on mass gatherings could prove ineffective judging by recent scenes on the Thai-Myanmar border, where thousands of migrant workers are stuck at the border and gathered in potential disease-transmitting crowds because their Thai visas expired and the border is partially closed.
Authorities’ only intervention in the pandemonium was to declare that the returning migrants should “self-quarantine” for two weeks in their home villages.
Neighboring Thailand, meanwhile, has seen a recent spike in cases with 499 as of March 22, the second most in Southeast Asia after Malaysia.
One reason the Myanmar government may be playing down the risk, critics and observers say, is because the nation’s decrepit and under-resourced health system would be quickly overwhelmed if cases started to spread.
According to the US Institute of Health, Myanmar’s health care conditions have improved somewhat over the past decade, but since 2006 it has nevertheless been listed as one of 57 “crisis” countries which faces critical health workforce shortages.
The findings also showed that 13 out of 15 states and regions were below the World Health Organization recommended minimum number of one medical doctor per 1,000 people.
The government is instead relying on public health messaging. Suu Kyi has recently been shown on television and over social media carefully washing her hands and explaining to the citizenry how to prevent the disease’s spread.
Critics, however, have fired back that most people in Myanmar’s rural hinterland lack running water, and very few even among the urban population would have the kind of modern, Western-style washbasin she used in her stage-managed video performance.
“They are just playing to the gallery. There is no substance to the new measures,” a well-placed political analyst in Yangon said. “And this will backfire badly when the real crisis hits the country.”
The main problem, he says, is that Myanmar lacks the resources and expertise to check the spread of the disease. At the outset of the now global crisis, samples of suspected carriers of the virus were sent to Thailand for testing and analysis.
Singapore recently supplied Myanmar with 3,000 diagnostic tests and two polymerase chain reaction (PCR) machines to test for the disease. China, meanwhile, has sent 2,000 test kits.
But it’s not clear how widely those are being used as authorities and officials unswervingly attribute recent clusters of deaths to other causes.
“The last thing Myanmar’s people want from their government is another cover-up,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Being transparent, providing factual information in a timely way, and dropping half-baked theories of national exceptionalism to the global pandemic is what’s needed.”
There is little indication so far, however, to indicate that Myanmar will drop its denials and tackle the situation head-on.
The Global New Light of Myanmar state newspaper insisted in a March 23 report that “there are no Covid-19 patients…but monitoring activities are being conducted will full momentum.”
That “momentum”, it said, includes the monitoring of five patients. But while Suu Kyi theatrically washes her hands, many observers of the situation are increasingly wringing theirs.