Hitting Where It Hurts: Impacts of COVID-19 Measures on Myanmar Poor

A commentary by Nwet Kay Khine

In a country that was ruled by dictatorship for several decades, the local administration units are also no stranger to emergency-like authoritarian measures. Many thought there is no option but detention to deal with the situation. It is easier for the authorities even at the village and ward levels to ensure authoritarian submission if the country is in panic.

As it is impossible to put a date on when the COVID-19 will end, unprecedented setbacks within the “new normal” period are likely to happen any time. To prevent a higher risk of transmission, the government agencies are making sure that punishment mechanisms for non-compliance are functioning. However, random law enforcement measures can give confusing signals and may directly and indirectly increase the economic pressure on the poor. That is why all stakeholders who are involved in law enforcement processes must be aware of the core principles reflected in the UN implementing guidelines on emergencies, namely “legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination”.

A community-based health check gate for COVID-19 prevention

Since Myanmar has not had a substantial level of trans-boundary connectedness in the last five decades, COVID-19 is the first time to experience being part of a crisis of such a global scale. In previous global health crises, such as SARS, MERS and H1N1, the country was quite detached from the rest of the Asia because of its prolonged isolation. In the last ten years, Myanmar has been increasingly linked to the international community through trade, aid and increasingly, global supply chains. During these years, inequality is ever widening under a neoliberal economic regime which favors elite interests at the expense of rural and marginalized communities. Since the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis, the capacity of the people to respond has been conditioned largely by these prevailing economic and social disparities. The situation these past months shows how some people are getting hit harder than others during the lockdown.

Admitting concern for the potential risk of rapid transmission due to the proximity to countries with high infection rates, like China, the Myanmar government started to take forceful preventive measures in the middle of March by initiating public health education in multiple platforms. At the same time, a series of response programs were introduced to boost the resilience of the people to the COVID-19 related economic downturn. By the end of June, three rounds of relief packages had been provided to the lowest income groups worth approximately 75000 Kyat per household (60 US Dollar with June exchange rate). According to the Presidential Office, with the second round, government relief will have reached more than 5 million households. As of March, the government has been giving low-interest loans to small and medium sized enterprises (SME) and about 100 billion Kyat has been distributed across the country with priority given to the manufacturing and tourism sectors.

For these relief activities, Myanmar has received US$1.25 billion loans (as of June 16) from international financial institutions and bilateral donors including the World Bank, Asian Development Bank, IMF and Japan. According to the COVID-19 Economic Relief Plan (CERP) launched in April, a substantial part of new loans will cover improvement of emergency health care facilities for the fight against COVID-19. If these loans are properly managed with strong governance, the prevailing state of Myanmar’s health system can be improved. Myanmar had just 0.71 Intensive Care Unit (ICU) beds per 100,000 population, and 0.46 ventilators per 100,000 population, unevenly spread across 25 central level hospitals and 24 region/state level hospitals, according to the World Bank (as of end of March 2020). If used well, such support could help to ease the extreme pressures on a woefully underfunded and inadequate health care system including by increasing the number of trained personnel in the medical sector. However, the stimulus packages to the economic sector may not guarantee an immediate trickledown effect on the most vulnerable and marginalized population as the government promised. This is because most of the poorest members of society are less likely to have formal employment with access to social protection under the existing labor laws.

According to the Living Condition Survey by the UNDP and the World Bank, nearly 30 per cent of Myanmar population are living on less than 1600 Kyat per day, which is equivalent to just 1.2 USD in 2017. Myanmar’s poorest 40% earned less than 22 percent of the total income in Myanmar. Among these poorest 40%, earning the least are landless laborers engaged in non-farm business. In rural areas, eight out of ten households are engaged in agrarian activities, but the income of this segment of population represents only 37% of the total income. With such high level of inequality, the aim of “No one left behind” by the government emergency economic relief scheme for inclusive recovery is in practice merely a slogan. Over the past six months, COVID-19 has ruthlessly exacerbated the pre-pandemic poverty among the people.

U Thaung Htun, Union Minister of Investment and Foreign Economic Relations and the Chairman of the COVID-19 Economic Relief Work Committee said that Myanmar is a food sufficient country and a quick recovery for Myanmar must focus on promoting agricultural exports and exploiting its competitive advantage in global supply chains. Meanwhile, farmers and fishing folks began suffering waves of losses as exports to foreign markets dropped due to the freezing of global supply chains during the lock-down since February. Moreover, the government has set as a priority inviting foreign investors in the hope that it will increase job creation.

Noticing that investments in the extractives sector did not stop coming during Covid-19, there are warnings from civil society members that a rush to woo foreign investors may induce irresponsible business that are more harmful to environmental sustainability. If past experiences are a guide, the haste for investment in both agrarian and extractive industries can push more people into vulnerable positions. In the past, the free, prior, and informed consent of the communities concerned has not usually been sought in this kind of investment plan. Social well-being and environmental protection have often been compromised. Although civil society groups have urged the government to temporarily suspend issuing licenses for mining, exploration, dam construction projects, hydropower projects and energy related projects that are detrimental to the environment and local communities, since the public cannot gather to respond during the pandemic. In May 2020, the Ministry of Natural Resources and Environmental Conservation (MONREC) announced that it plans to approve up to 158 new medium and large-scale exploration and extraction mining permits.

During the lock down, not only the urban poor but also the rural poor suffered economically because for many households, income diversification through migrant labour is no longer an option, at least for now. Prior to the pandemic, migration from rural areas had increased dramatically over the last ten years due to the lack of decent employment at home. Now there are more and more returnees every day, especially after Thailand eased travel restrictions and allowed migrants to return home since May. Concerns for job security are rising in border areas like in the Shan, Mon and Karen States and Tanintharyi Region. For the returnees, the future is very uncertain not knowing how long their joblessness will last. With the migrants’ return, competition for livelihood opportunities has intensified in these home communities.

In many cases, being poor means being prone to more risk during the lockdown. Although rules for social distancing protect the better-off, in many cases, they hit the poor the hardest as compliance is very difficult for them. Now, here comes the role of punishment, which many see as an unavoidable part of the COVID-19 containment process. According to the presidential official, over 8,000 people were prosecuted for breaking quarantine, making social gatherings and breaching night time curfew. Out of them, a total of 3100 people were penalized for not wearing masks.

In a country that was ruled by dictatorship for several decades, the local administration units are also no stranger to emergency-like authoritarian measures. Many thought there is no option but detention to deal with the situation. It is easier for the authorities even at the village and ward levels to ensure authoritarian submission if the country is in panic. No sooner than the government decided to suspend celebrations of Water Festival, which marks the beginning of the new year in the Myanmar calendar, did many people in urban and rural areas take steps to try to safeguard their communities from COVID-19.

Like during the Nargis Cyclone relief period in 2008, Myanmar communities are quite willing and active to generously contribute to collective efforts, typically led by the village and ward level administrative councils. Overnight, grassroots groups like COVID-19 ‘control’ committees have sprung up, mobilizing to implement what measures they think are best for their communities. When a government directive is unclear or confusing, which sometimes is the case, these local committees are left to interpret within their own feasibility and traditional knowledge resources. One consequence of this is an emerging pattern of inconsistency. In many places, even villages under the same township are applying different methods to make so-called ‘social distancing’ effective. Some villages prohibit entry of food vendors coming from outside the village, while others allow them to enter after complying with mandatory hand washing at the entrance gate.

The Assistance Association for Political Prisoners stressed that the weight of penalty for breaking these emergency measures is different from one case to another depending on the interpretation of the judges. While some courts have been careful not to use excessive force, others want to send the strongest possible message as a deterrent. For the same type of crime, some were reportedly released from jail after paying 5000 kyat, while others were sentenced with nine-months imprisonment. Human Rights Watch has called these prison terms excessive and unsafe given that prison is not a place where social distancing measures are possible.

Since the lockdown has been looming in the region for a while, some concerned civil society organizations (CSOs) began alerting each other about the potential for emergency measures to be a double-edge sword. On the one hand, they are needed urgently to combat the pandemic and a badly prepared country like Myanmar would necessarily have to rely on strict enforcement of recommended ‘social distancing’ measures. On the other hand, emergency measures can also easily be a pretext for authoritarian-minded leaders to try to consolidate power at all administrative levels. Consequently, more than 250 CSOs released a positioning statement stressing that:

“we are worried that the unchecked power during the time of emergency and its utilization sometime eroded the human dignity and democratic values, while alluding more control to those who control political and economic power. This was exacerbated by the realities of the country whose control was ceded to only a handful of elites.”

At the beginning of April, many States and Regions including Yangon, Mandalay, Ayeyarwaddy, Sagaing, Shan, Kayah, Kayin and Mon imposed curfews and “stay at home” guidelines were strictly enforced, along with banning of public transportation networks and of gatherings of more than five people. For the poorest people, it means no job and food security for a period of uncertainty. If they fail to obey the rules, they must be punished under the laws and regulations.

Until late June, administrative bodies in many townships in Yangon were still arresting hundreds of people and sending to them to court every day for not wearing masks. With the temperature at above 40C in May (typical for Yangon in the dry season), wearing a mask for the whole day is hellish for many working people — like street hawkers, for example, who only now are able to resume their paying jobs after two months of strict lockdown. If lucky, those who are arrested may spend just half a day in court waiting for a decision and to pay the fine for an alleged crime, either under the National Disaster Management Law or the Prevention and Control of Communicable Diseases Law. However, evidently, not everyone is equal before the law. This has been pointed out in social media, where many denounced the judicial system after the State Minister as well as other top Government leaders from Yangon Region appeared organizing big crowds for religious rituals in late May. Understandably, such behavior – and the absence of punishments for it — sparked anger among many people because many others are being put in jail even for accidental breaking of laws.

The most vulnerable people are those who are affected by the armed conflict. In addition to not being able to avail of public health education, healthcare service and proper hygiene that are fundamental to disease prevention, they are also cut out from the digital public sphere. The internet shut-down in nine townships — namely Buthidaung, Kyauktaw, Maungdaw, Minbya, Mrauk-U, Myebon, Ponnagyun, and Rathedaung in Rakhine State and Paletwa township in Chin State — started already in last year June. It has significantly curtailed public access to news of hunger and insecurity of people in the war zone. Between December 2018 and May 2020, the war reportedly resulted in 257 deaths and 570 injuries among civilians including children, and the number of displaced people has been on the rise since COVID-19 has started.

The war makes it impossible for people in the war zones to stay informed about the epidemic; their right to health is being denied. Stressing human security for all civilians, Rakhine civil society groups have demanded that the internet shut-down – which outrightly discriminates against the affected areas – should be cancelled immediately. Meanwhile, the main challenges for all conflict areas and Internally Displaced Person (IDP) camps along all of Myanmar’s borders are access to public health education, health service and COVID-19 emergency related ‘protection and prevention equipment’ (PPE) supplies, including masks, and sanitary measures. It seems that UN Secretary-General António Gutierres’ appeal for a global ceasefire amid the COVID-19 pandemic — released on 23 March 2020 — seems too distant from all warring parties in Myanmar.

Only on May 10 did the military announce a unilateral ceasefire with all armed forces — except the Arakan Army, which was recently categorized as a terrorist organization. While the civil war appears to be unstoppable, one more war is now added to the government agenda – that is, to fight against the corona virus. In this battle to defeat COVID-19, the State Counsellor has stated that, “Those who come into the country illegally, those who receive them knowingly, and those who cover up will be dealt with strictly and severely according to the law”. This new restriction announced in 13 June will have a significant impact on those who live near the border line around conflict zones and anyone who is not well informed about the changing situation on the Myanmar side.

As it is impossible to put a date on when the COVID-19 will end, unprecedented setbacks within the “new normal” period are likely to happen any time. To prevent a higher risk of transmission, the government agencies are making sure that punishment mechanisms for non-compliance are functioning. However, random law enforcement measures can give confusing signals and may directly and indirectly increase the economic pressure on the poor. That is why all stakeholders who are involved in law enforcement processes must be aware of the four core principles reflected in the UN implementing guidelines on emergencies, namely “legality, necessity, proportionality and non-discrimination”.

The restrictions must be provided by the law and all should be enforced only in a non-arbitrary and reasonable manner. People must clearly understand the impact of legal measures and information must be accessible to the public. A fair trial must be respected during a state of emergency and only a court of law may try and convict a person for a criminal offence and the presumption of innocence must be respected. Even if restrictions become necessary on the grounds of right to health, implementation of restriction measures must not undermine other pressing social needs. Based on the proportionality principle, restriction must be appropriate to achieve its desired result and, must be the least intrusive option. No discrimination is permissible, as abiding by the provisions of international human rights law is essential.

As Myanmar is a country which is now prone to emergencies especially with ones related to natural disasters, Myanmar should be more prepared for abiding by these principles. No-one should be truly left behind in terms of access to information and services, and no-one should suffer disproportionally from COVID-19 related measures.

Dr. Nwet Kay Khine is a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Social Development Studies, Faculty of Political Science of Chulalongkorn University in Thailand. She is also an editor of Chindwin magazine, and writes literature and fiction articles under the pen name “Me’ Mway”.

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