As the Junta Weaponizes COVID-19, the People of Myanmar Need Emergency Assistance

July 18th, 2021  •  Author:   Progressive Voice  •  12 minute read
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“Ultimately, the root cause of all these human rights and humanitarian catastrophes is the military junta’s insatiable lust for power at all costs, including letting the people of Myanmar perish from COVID-19 as collateral damage to their ends. This is another impasse which requires the international community’s emergency response.”

It has been over five months since the unlawful coup d’etat attempt by Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing and his military junta, setting into motion a nationwide campaign of terror against the people of Myanmar. The horrific killing of peaceful protesters, unlawful mass detentions, torture, sexual and gender-based violence, military attacks in ethnic areas, displacement and countless instances of untold suffering are being perpetrated during a deadly, once-in-lifetime pandemic. Over the past months, the consequences of this have borne out with an escalation of COVID-19 cases and deaths, including the cases of highly contagious Delta variant present in Myanmar. This is the third wave since the virus hit Myanmar in 2020, with 296 of 330 townships nationwide reporting COVID-19 cases since May, spanning across 90 percent of all townships. Myanmar’s hospitals and COVID-19 centers have reached maximum capacity, unable to take any more patients and turning people away. At military hospitals, staff are turning away civilians desperate enough to seek assistance from the source of their misery, under orders to limit treatment to military personnel and their relatives. One doctor has characterised the situation as ‘out of control’, with hospitals overwhelmed and without enough basic medical supplies such as oxygen and respirators. The true extent of the crisis is still unknown, given there are no independently sourced figures, and the figures presented by the junta are untrustworthy and unreliable, with contact tracing and testing not comprehensively covering a wide enough catchment to derive conclusive results.

In hard hit Kalay, Sagaing Region, the hospitals do not have enough oxygen and are turning people away, with over 500 people dying of COVID-19 since late May and 207 dying between 1 July to 6 July. Many of these people are dying at home, including the tragic case of Myat Thuzar, who was turned away from hospitals and clinics while battling COVID-19 and in labor with her son and then unable to leave her home due to military-enforced curfews. Both mother and baby died – unable to access medical treatment. Hundreds of people are queuing outside Kalay’s oxygen production plant everyday, which is hampered by unstable supply of electricity from Kalay’s power grid, and access to oxygen through deliveries from outside Kalay is often interrupted by conflict erupting near the main highway. All the while, people are told to stay at home, and unable to seek treatment after 8pm, with military orders to gun down people on sight if in the streets after curfew. Furthermore, the military junta has used the situation in Kalay as a cover for their sickening crimes, killing two young people during interrogation and claiming they died of COVID-19. The oxygen shortage in Kalay is indicative of the country as a whole, with extreme shortages reported in Naypyitaw, Yangon, Mandalay, Bago and many other regions. Since 11 July the military has ordered oxygen production for home use for individuals to be stopped and diverted to junta-controlled hospitals, clinics and quarantine centers, as the junta’s spokesperson accuses people of hoarding oxygen unnecessarily. On 12 July, chaotic scenes broke out in Yangon’s South Dagon township as military personnel opened fire to disperse crowds of people queuing for oxygen. For those in ethnic areas the situation is dire, such as Chin State where the military has banned the transportation of medicine and oxygen and is limiting the amount of food entering the state.

Since 1 February, 2021, the military junta has systematically dismantled the healthcare system and volunteer networks through the persecution of medical professionals connected to the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), including arresting the head of the vaccination rollout, Dr. Htar Htar Lin, her husband and 7-year-old son and charging her with high treason for participating in the CDM. The military has declared war on medical professionals – calling them enemies of the state. The shocking CCTV footage of paramedic volunteers being beaten by junta thugs in the early days after the coup attempt is a clear example of this. Other medical professionals have been beaten, arrested and attacked by the junta for assisting injured or wounded peaceful protesters during the Spring Revolution. At least 157 medical professionals have been arbitrarily arrested, 32 injured and 12 killed by the junta since 1 February, 2021. Many medical professionals who joined the CDM, have not returned to work as they continue to reject the military coup and instead provide healthcare to people voluntarily, including in conflict areas. Others are unable to return to work due to fear for their lives, or they have been forced underground with warrants out for their arrest. Also, vaccines are not available for medical professionals or civilians but even if they were, many would refuse to get them on principle – as they feel to do so would condone the military’s takeover of the health system and country. Additionally, military personnel are occupying 51 hospitals around the country, so many medical professionals and civilians are at a real risk of being unceremoniously arrested. There are many courageous medical professionals continuing their work underground and pooling resources to treat patients. One such doctor set up a clinic to help those with seven other doctors in a monastery, even in the knowledge that the junta is after her. Even though she fears being caught, and after a few close calls, she says “All people have to die one day. So I’m prepared.” Ethnic armed organizations have also stepped in to administer vaccines and provide healthcare in ethnic areas after the military junta dismantled the COVID-19 reponse. These initiatives are best equipped to provide culturally-sensitive services, in ethnic minority languages and to their own peoples.

For the most vulnerable in Myanmar, such as internally displaced persons (IDPs) and those living in poverty, the threat of COVID-19 is a considerably seriously heavy burden to bear on top of the ongoing military attacks, humanitarian crises, periodically electricity cuts interrupting lifesaving oxygen supply. There are also potential electricity outages for those unable or refusing to pay the electricity bill to the military as part of the ongoing Civil Disobedience Movement in rejection of the military coup. Also, there are food shortages due to reduced cash flow and preventable diseases are being spread due to unsafe water and unhygienic environments coupled with a lack of adequate healthcare. As a result of the coup, one million children have been unable to obtain routine vaccinations for hepatitis B, tuberculosis, tetanus, measles, mumps, rubella, polio, and influenza. In Pipin Yip IDP Camp, Rakhine State, there has been no provisions given for soap, hand sanitizer, face masks and other PPE since the second wave in September 2020. Unable to generate enough funds for food, water, adequate shelter, or healthcare, let alone the necessities required to prevent the spread of COVID-19, many IDPs are unprepared for the third wave. For those in detention, the situation is dire. In Insein Prison, 40 prisoners tested positive for COVID-19, according to a recently released political prisoner. The prison is overcrowded without the capacity to manage a Covid-19 outbreak, and without nutritious food or adequate medicine, prisoners are at grave risk. The Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Myanmar, Mr. Tom Andrews has strongly advocated for prisoners at particular risk of contracting Covid-19. He describes the COVID-19 situation in Myanmar as a ‘perfect storm’, and is concerned about the possible misapplication of $350 million in COVID-19 aid loaned from the International Monetary Fund to the NLD-led Government, and overall is urging the international community to intervene as the crisis worsens. Additionally, in accordance with UN Security Council Resolution 2532 (2020), the international community must assist in brokering a nationwide ceasefire in Myanmar, executed through putting an end to the junta’s nationwide military assaults against the people. The resolution also compels the UN Secretary General and UN Country Team to place all efforts on mitigating the effects of COVID-19 and direct humanitarian responses in conflict areas.

The junta is weaponizing the COVID-19 and utilizing it for their own propaganda by using medical professionals as the scapegoat for the COVID-19 deaths, rather than acknowledging they are solely to blame. This continues their pattern of using Covid-19 as a weapon to intensify repression of ethnic minorities, rights defenders and the media in 2020, as laid out in Progressive Voice’s briefing paper, A Nation Left Behind – Myanmar’s Weaponization of COVID-19. While this façade is very transparent, it also has dire consequences by preventing the urgent response needed to end the COVID-19 outbreak now. Ultimately, the root cause of all these human rights and humanitarian catastrophes is the military junta’s insatiable lust for power at all costs, including letting the people of Myanmar perish from COVID-19 as collateral damage to their ends. This is another impasse which requires the international community’s emergency response. In this regard, the UN Security Council and the Secretary-General must dispatch an emergency humanitarian  intervention mission to Myanmar to assist in mitigating the third wave of COVID-19.  Additionally, the international community must cooperate and consult with the National Unity Government’s Health Ministry in these efforts, ensuring the free distribution of vaccines without monopolies, as well as pushing the junta to cease conflict, as the international community steps in. Meanwhile, the international humanitarian organizations, including the UNOCHA, must redouble efforts to provide humanitarian aid through local organizations and cross border humanitarian groups to alleviate this crisis. To resolve root causes of these crises Myanmar is facing on multiple fronts, the international community must sever the junta’s revenue streams through targeted sanctions against the junta’s businesses, affiliated businesses and cronies. Additionally, there must be a coordinated push for the reinforcement of a global arms embargo and for the situation in Myanmar to be referred to the International Criminal Court by the UN Security Council. A fortified and coordinated response without hesitation, is the only way for the international community to save lives and meet the needs of this crisis to and support the unwavering aspiration and sacrifice of the people of Myanmar for democracy.


[1] One year following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, the former military junta changed the country’s name from Burma to Myanmar overnight. Progressive Voice uses the term ‘Myanmar’ in acknowledgement that most people of the country use this term. However, the deception of inclusiveness and the historical process of coercion by the former State Peace and Development Council military regime into usage of ‘Myanmar’ rather than ‘Burma’ without the consent of the people is recognized and not forgotten. Thus, under certain circumstances, ‘Burma’ is used.

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Progressive Voice is a participatory, rights-based policy research and advocacy organization that was born out of Burma Partnership. Burma Partnership officially ended its work on October 10, 2016 transitioning to a rights-based policy research and advocacy organization called Progressive Voice. For further information, please see our press release “Burma Partnership Celebrates Continuing Regional Solidarity for Burma and Embraces the Work Ahead for Progressive Voice.”