Volunteers wearing personal protective equipment carry the body of a victim of Covid-19 to a cemetery in Hlegu Township in Yangon on July 10, 2021. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

Journalists, activists and other observers are beginning to wonder if the absence of any large-scale demonstrations in Myanmar means that the junta’s brutal repression of the protests means that the anti-coup movement has run out of steam.

But apart from lethal military repression, there is another killer force that is keeping Myanmar’s agitated people off the streets: a third wave of the Covid-19 pandemic, a viral surge that is far more serious than previous outbreaks in March and August last year.

According to official statistics from Myanmar’s coup-installed Ministry of Health and Sports, 296 of the country’s 330 townships are now affected by the disease.

Data collected by the Coronavirus Detection Center at Johns Hopkins University show 118,752 confirmed cases and 3,756 fatalities in Myanmar, but those figures are, even if one relies on official reports, likely only the tip of the iceberg.

On July 10, the ministry announced 4,377 new cases nationwide based on only 15,128 swab tests conducted that day. If the figures are related, it would mean that almost a third of those tested turned were found to be Covid-19 positive.

Myanmar’s urban-based health system is in the best of times dilapidated and badly under-resourced; for rural areas health facilities are nearly non-existent, a legacy of military governments that spent excessively more on arms than public health.

Now, hospitals are running out of beds with the new wave in Covid cases, forcing medical staff to turn away new patients. Reports indicate there is an acute shortage of everything from oxygen to medical equipment to vaccines.

According to a local source in Yangon who requested anonymity, there may be a political aspect to the crisis: “The junta doesn’t want to truly fight the pandemic because people are now diverting their attention and energies to this, and not taking part in the civil disobedience movement.”

People wait to fill oxygen cylinders outside a factory in Yangon on July 11, 2021, amid a surge in Covid-19 cases. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

Companies that usually supply oxygen to health centers and individual patients have recently been commanded by the junta to first supply the military and its appointed authorities.

This, in turn, has fueled more anger and distrust towards the coup-installed regime, whose leaders could have sought to turn health crisis into political opportunity with equitable and competent management.

The politics involved in Myanmar’s fight against Covid-19 make it unique in a global context. Doctors, nurses and other health workers were at the forefront of the civil disobedience movement that rocked the nation after Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s democracy-suspending coup on February 1.

Many went on strike from state hospitals and instead treated patients in Buddhist temples.  

Military authorities have not spared medical workers in their often brutal crackdown on the protests. Video footage circulated on social media has shown police dragging health workers in transit to treat those wounded in the demonstrations out of their red-cross-marked vehicles and beating them with batons and rifle butts.

According to the US-based Physicians for Human Rights, arrest warrants have been issued for 400 doctors and 180 nurses while 157 health workers have actually been arrested, 32 wounded and 12 killed as of July 6.

According to the Associated Press, “Myanmar is now one of the most dangerous places on earth for healthcare workers, with 240 attacks this year – nearly half on the 508 globally tracked by the World Health Organization.”

Myanmar doctors demonstrate against the military coup in Yangon on February 12, 2021. Photo: AFP / NurPhoto / Myat Thu Kyaw

But even the military and police, both of which usually have privileged access to better health facilities than ordinary citizens, have been hard-hit by the pandemic.

The independent Myanmar news site Mizzima reported on July 7 that certain senior military officers have tested positive for Covid-19. Among them is the northern military commander in Kachin state, Brigadier General Myat Thet Oo and at least two unnamed general staff officers.

They are now reportedly being kept in quarantine and receiving intensive treatment by military doctors at a local medical facility.

According to Myanmar Now, another independent Myanmar news outlet, 105 men from the military’s border police and family members in northern Rakhine state have also tested positive.

They had been deployed to guard the border with Bangladesh and prevent Muslim Rohingya refugees from returning amid the wider national chaos.

Nor is there much vaccine hope in sight. In January this year, India gifted Myanmar with 1.5 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccine. But since the coup, the junta’s attention has shifted instead to allies China and Russia for future supplies.

During a visit to Moscow in late June, Min Aung Hlaing said in an interview with Russia’s RIA news agency that Myanmar is negotiating to buy seven million doses of Russia’s Sputnik vaccine, which notably is not yet approved by the WHO.

That would be in addition to the 500,000 doses of Chinese-produced vaccines that were delivered in May, with plans to buy at least another million from China in the months ahead.

But exactly how this vaccination program is going to be carried out and by whom is altogether unclear. Only four million doses have so far been delivered, or just enough to cover a mere 4% of the population.

This screengrab provided via AFPTV and taken from a broadcast by Myanmar Radio and Television in Myanmar on April 1, 2021, shows a Buddhist monk being inoculated with a Covid-19 coronavirus vaccine in Naypyidaw. Photo: AFP

With the issue increasingly politicized, Myanmar will be hard-pressed to bring the pandemic under control. Ironically, or perhaps symptomatically, the only efficient vaccination programs so far have been conducted in areas not controlled by the military government.

In the Wa Hills of northeastern Shan state, nearly everyone has been vaccinated with Chinese assistance and in collaboration with the United Wa State Army militia.

In Kachin state, The Irrawaddy news site reported on July 9 that the Kachin Independence Army “has taken Covid-19 prevention, control and treatment measures on its own, with the assistance of China, which has provided the KIA with medical training and Covid-19 testing equipment.”

If Myanmar’s junta can’t bring the pandemic under control soon, the already moribund economy will be completely decimated.

After a decade of relative openness that pushed economic growth above 7% annually, those gains are quickly being unwound by the military’s disastrous takeover and the general strikes and economic seizure that have followed.

People receive bags of rice distributed by the World Food Programme as part of food aid efforts to support residents living in poor communities on the outskirts of Yangon in May 2021. Photo: AFP

Fitch Ratings predicted in June that Myanmar’s economy could shrink a whopping 20% in the October 2020 to September 2021 fiscal year, due largely to the disruption caused by the coup. That forecast was made well before the recent rapid surge in Covid-19 infections.

The World Bank has forecast a 10% contraction for this year, while the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) is now warning that half of Myanmar’s 55-million strong population could slip into poverty by 2022.

After five months of brutal military rule and economic regression, Myanmar is entering an even deeper crisis with the spread of Covid-19. And there is little indication that the unyielding junta in power in Naypyitaw has the means or intention to reverse the dire downward trends.