Thursday, 29 Jul 2021

As Covid-19 rages in Myanmar, army hoarding oxygen, doctors say

YANGON (NYTIMES) – First, the junta stole Myanmar’s elected leaders from the people. Now, doctors say, the generals have taken the oxygen that some citizens need to breathe.

As the Delta variant of the coronavirus rampages through Myanmar, the military, which seized power in a February coup, has ordered that lifesaving oxygen be denied to private clinics, according to medical workers.

The clinics are staffed largely by doctors who oppose the army’s takeover and refuse to work in state hospitals. Basic medical care for Covid-19 patients has been turned into an illegal act, said Dr Min Han, a doctor at a private clinic.

The military has also prevented people from buying supplies from oxygen producers, whom it accuses of price-gouging, forcing desperate family members to defy the army in order to save sick relatives. And it has stopped charities from giving oxygen to people who need it, witnesses and charity workers said.

This week, soldiers in the city of Yangon went so far as to fire into a crowd of people lined up to buy oxygen tanks, witnesses said.

Doctors accuse the military of trying to ensure that the scarce supply of oxygen is funnelled to military hospitals, which cater to army families.

Denying oxygen to private clinics and citizens has prematurely ended hundreds of lives, medical workers say, adding a cruel political dimension to an escalating health crisis. Thousands more are at imminent risk of dying, they say.

And with the junta having apparently reserved much of the vaccine supply for its loyal ranks, there is little hope that Myanmar’s Covid-19 outbreak, by far its worst yet, will end anytime soon.

“An explosion of Covid-19 cases, including the Delta variant, the collapse of Myanmar’s healthcare system, and the deep mistrust of the people of Myanmar of anything connected to the military junta are a perfect storm of factors that could cause significant loss of life in Myanmar without emergency assistance by the international community,” Mr Tom Andrews, the United Nations special rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar, said on Wednesday.

Public anger towards the army – which has already shot dead hundreds of people protesting against the coup, as well as children and other bystanders – has only hardened.

“I wonder if the military is trying to survive by making it so there are no people left in the country,” said Mr Ko Thein Zaw, a resident of Mandalay, the second-largest city in Myanmar.

He  and his wife were married just before the putsch but cancelled their honeymoon because of the turmoil. When his wife tested positive for Covid-19 this month, Mr Ko Thein Zaw scrambled to secure oxygen tanks for her. He could not find enough. On July 12, she died, gasping for breath.

“My wife died because of the coup and because the military is trying to destroy everything good for the people,” said Mr Ko Thein Zaw, who is now sick with Covid-19 himself. “Myanmar is a nation in which there are many ways to die.”

On Wednesday, 7,083 people tested positive for Covid-19 and 145 died, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. Medical experts say such official numbers are a fraction of the real caseload, given the shortage of testing and poor record-keeping.

In an alarming sign of how widespread Myanmar’s Covid-19 outbreak has become, more than 34 per cent of those tested had the disease. By contrast, the seven-day average positivity rate in the United States from late June to early July was 2.7 per cent.

Less than one-third of the people in Myanmar who need oxygen can secure adequate supplies, said Mr Ko Aung Aung Oo, president of a medical charity in Mandalay.


Volunteers pray at a funeral for people who died due to Covid-19 in Mandalay on July 14, 2021. PHOTO: REUTERS

Yet even as the virus rages, the military-led government has tried to present itself as the people’s benefactor. State media quoted Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, the junta chief, as batting away suggestions that oxygen supplies were being restricted by the army.

“Actually, we have enough oxygen,” the general said, according to the government-run Global New Light of Myanmar newspaper on Tuesday. “The people do not need to worry about it so much and should not spread the rumour.”

Instead, the junta has accused sellers of oxygen cylinders of price-gouging. That was the reason it gave when it recently announced that people would no longer be allowed to buy from them directly.

The army has also heaped scorn on doctors and other medical workers who have refused to work at government hospitals as part of a much broader mass civil disobedience movement meant to make it impossible for the junta to govern.

But many state-employed doctors taking part in the labour stoppage, which has united more than one million government workers, are caring for patients privately.

“We find a way to help people,” said Dr Hsu Mon, who is practising at an underground clinic. “The military doesn’t care about how to help or how to work for people. They only work for their family members.”

This week, doctors at private clinics received directives from the junta forbidding them from receiving oxygen supplies, said Dr Min Han, the private clinic physician.

While stockpiling oxygen for its ranks, the army has offered useless or dangerous advice to the populace. Garlic helps ward off Covid-19, state propaganda has suggested. So does citrus.


People demonstrate against the military coup in Yangon on July 14, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

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On Wednesday, a spokesman for the Ministry of Health and Sports advised people who want to monitor their blood oxygen levels to download an app on their iPhones. Few people in Myanmar, one of Asia’s poorest countries, own iPhones. And the app she recommended contained potentially dangerous misinformation about acceptable blood oxygen levels.

Meanwhile, soldiers have been actively disrupting oxygen supply lines. On Monday in Yangon, Myanmar’s largest city, security forces sprayed gunfire at a line of people waiting to buy oxygen. It was not immediately clear whether there were casualties. Asked about the incident, a Yangon health official said the people had to be dispersed because they were disobeying lockdown orders.

In the south-eastern city of Mawlamyine, Mr Ko Naing Win, a charity worker, said soldiers had arrived this week demanding to know how he had imported oxygen from neighbouring Thailand. They told him to stop or face jail, he said.

He has stopped donating oxygen to the public. “People in need of oxygen keep coming to me in tears,” he said. “But I’m afraid that I will get arrested.”

Covid-19 is also ripping through Myanmar’s prisons, which are crowded with thousands of people whose sole crime was opposing the coup, human rights groups said. Among those said to be critically ill are senior members of the National League for Democracy, the governing party that was ousted by the coup.

Mr Danny Fenster, an American journalist who is locked up in Insein, Myanmar’s most notorious prison, has developed symptoms consistent with Covid-19, his family said. He has not been tested nor received any medical treatment, they said.

“Thousands of political prisoners who have been arbitrarily detained since the coup are in grave danger,” said Mr Andrews, the UN special rapporteur.

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