In the South-East Asian country, there is a saying for hard times when multiple challenges collide.
“This is a time of injury on top of injury for Myanmar,” says Pyae Phyo Maung, speaking of COVID-19 as well as recent natural disasters.
The 27-year-old football fan is from Shan State, a hilly plateau region in Myanmar’s east, bordering China and Thailand. Staying at an ICRC-supported physical rehabilitation centre in Kyaing Tong, it was hard for him to return home because of challenges posed by COVID-19.
Pyae Phyo Maung first sought treatment at the centre years ago. It was there that he met the centre’s wheelchair basketball coach, Maung Maung Lwin. He has been involved in the wheelchair basketball community across the country ever since.
“As a sports enthusiast, I thought there was no hope of playing again after I lost my leg. When I got the chance to play, I was so glad to be able to reconnect with my love for sport,” he says.
Earning a livelihood has been particularly hard during the pandemic and an added layer of stress for those living in an area of Myanmar that has also been impacted by decades of conflict. “I remind my family to take care of themselves,” Pyae Phyo Maung says. “Another challenge from the need to socially isolate is the mental burden.”
At the southernmost tip of the Himalayas lies Myanmar’s northernmost state, Kachin. This is where 23-year-old psychology student Roi Seng is from. Interested in teaching, she works with young people in a camp for those who have been displaced by fighting – where she also lives.
“We heard the sound of many guns,” she says, describing how her family had to flee their home a decade ago. “We fled to the mountains first and didn’t know where to go at that time. My brother told us if we stayed in the mountains, we could not go to school.”
Eventually returning to school and living with her family in a series of displacement camps, Roi Seng was in her third year of university when her studies had to be put on hold because of COVID-19.
In her community, she had volunteered as a mental health counsellor for people with trauma and helped teach high-school students. Both programmes are now paused because of the pandemic. “Thinking positively, I meet a lot of people from different backgrounds here. We all have to stay together in this camp, which is a good thing,” says Roi Seng.
Among the greatest challenges for displaced communities facing COVID-19 is meeting basic daily needs – as finding work gets increasingly tough and the cost of living rises. “I feel left behind because of the COVID-19 pandemic,” says Roi Seng. “Living is harder.”
Right on Shan State’s border with Thailand is the town of Tachileik. Here, 22-year-old Hsu Myat Mon volunteers with the Myanmar Red Cross Society, helping those impacted by COVID-19.
I joined because it’s my passion. I wanted to become an MRCS volunteer to get a chance to assist others, helping them without hoping for anything in return
Hsu Myat Mon
Daily volunteer activities include raising awareness of COVID-19 prevention measures, assisting with disinfection, helping those in need of oxygen cylinders and raising money for those who can’t afford medicine. “When I tried to put on the PPE gown for the very first time, I did not know how to wear it and it looked like an alien or astronaut costume,” Hsu Myat Mon says. “Our team looked at each other and laughed so loudly – it was such a memorable moment for me.”
Shan State, much like Kachin to the north and Rakhine to the west, has endured years of conflict. Since February this year, Myanmar has also seen new waves of violence spread across the country.
For Hsu Myat Mon, these overlapping challenges – including natural disasters – require the overcoming of differences in a collective effort to respond. “In Myanmar, people are not only confronting COVID-19. I would ask people to stop hating and to help instead,” Hsu Myat Mon says.
The ICRC is a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian organization that has been working with communities impacted by conflict in Myanmar for more than 30 years. From providing emergency relief to sustainable responses to protracted conflict, we often work directly alongside the Myanmar Red Cross Society. Since the outset of COVID-19, we have adapted the delivery of our aid to include an effective health response.