Left Behind: Ethnic Minorities and COVID-19 Response in Rural Southeast Myanmar – Myanmar
Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, concerns have been expressed about what will happen in Myanmar, given its extremely weak health infrastructure, its long history of conflict and political instability, and its great impoverished and at-risk population. The low spread of the virus in Myanmar during the first half of 2020, however, has led some to believe that the Myanmar government is doing things right. The national representative of the World Health Organization in Myanmar boasted in July 2020 that “Myanmar has done extremely well so far”. He cited Myanmar’s’ whole-of-government ‘approach, adding:’ The country has therefore made every effort to strengthen public health and preparedness and response, which was of crucial importance in trying to ensure that we have as few cases as possible. possible in Myanmar. “
Although the Myanmar government’s COVID-19 economic relief plan (titled ‘Winning As One’) claimed it was a coordinated ‘leaving no one behind’ action, many of the actions Government’s positive results have not reached the general population. Aid and support has remained insufficient in most rural areas, such as that in south-eastern Myanmar, which is largely populated by ethnic minorities who are already vulnerable due to protracted and ongoing conflicts, displacement and violence. ethnic oppression of the central government. Thus, Myanmar’s “success” should and can only be measured by taking a closer look at the response and impact of COVID-19 in rural ethnic areas.
Very early in the pandemic, despite the relatively slow spread of the virus, political fractures and infrastructure weaknesses due to Myanmar’s long and continuing history of conflict could be seen not only in the government’s response, but also in that of Myanmar. ‘other stakeholders, such as Ethnic Armed Organizations (EAO), locally based civil society organizations and NGOs / INGOs. In a brief report on the situation in southeast Myanmar during the first wave of the pandemic, KHRG noted the lack of coordination and collaboration among stakeholders and the delayed and uneven response to the crisis. KHRG argued that “the lack of coordination among political stakeholders has meant that villagers and local leaders have struggled to obtain consistent information and training and regulations, and has left too much of the responsibility to determine what to do. ‘it must be done in the hands of those who do not have one. information and resources to effectively organize awareness raising and prevention ”. Not only has this poor coordination resulted in the forced removal of checkpoints by the Tatmadaw, but KHRG has also seen rising conflicts and tensions between villages, increasingly critical challenges for livelihoods, as well as the collapse of local mutual aid systems.
Given early indications that the response and support to COVID-19 was failing in some of the most vulnerable areas in south-eastern Myanmar, KHRG continued to monitor the situation to more fully assess structural weaknesses and obstacles that could lead to a crisis as the pandemic entered a second phase. wave of epidemics beginning in August 2020. Increasing threats of infection in rural areas have led in some cases to new awareness and prevention efforts, but in general triggered increased restrictions by both the government of Myanmar and the Karen National Union (KNU). So, rather than working to increase the individual knowledge and responsibility of the villagers, most of the measures ended up taking the form of general restrictions such as travel bans and school closures which had a significant negative impact on the community. the life of the villagers. These restrictions also seemed to be accompanied by a reduction in the range of actors providing services and assistance. Although the government provided small amounts of financial and material assistance to households in need, villagers living in areas controlled by KNU and some mixed control areas were excluded, leaving local authorities and CSOs / CBOs to find solutions to support these communities.
Most rural areas in south-eastern Myanmar have not (yet) experienced widespread local transmission of the virus, and the impacts have therefore been more clearly linked to restrictions and prevention measures as opposed to the overall health crisis observed. elsewhere. But due to the already extremely vulnerable situation of many rural communities, the impacts on livelihoods themselves risk creating a humanitarian crisis. The poor management of information and prevention so far, as well as testing and treatment, may also have wider implications if outbreaks start to occur in more remote areas.
On February 1, 2021, the Burmese army seized power by staging a coup against the newly elected government. While this report focuses on the pre-coup situation, the (admittedly inadequate) infrastructure and services that the central government, EAOs and other stakeholders have put in place over the past year are being dismantled. Public health services in some areas have shut down and there have been major disruptions in communications, transportation, supply chains and banking services. COVID-19 testing has been greatly reduced, and few reports are currently underway. Any generalized vaccination project seems to have been entirely halted.
While rural areas in south-eastern Myanmar have yet to face widespread infection problems, that is all likely to change. As local medics noted: “Since the military takeover, the response to COVID-19 has stalled. Mass public gatherings and demonstrations serve both an essential function for resistance and unity, but also as potentially large-scale events for the transmission of the virus. Without adequate testing, public compliance, and goodwill for isolation, access to acute clinical care, and continued vaccination, the implications for the spread, morbidity and mortality of COVID-19 are significant. »Thus, it is more than ever necessary to find solutions to provide support and assistance to rural villagers, whose situation has already deteriorated and has become more precarious over the past year. With the military now in command, there is even less chance of support and services reaching rural ethnic communities.
While this report covers the run-up to the coup and describes infrastructure that might barely exist now, the problems created by COVID-19 and the government’s response have not gone away and will need to be addressed. In addition, the underlying political dynamic that prevents the development of a supportive infrastructure capable of meeting the needs of rural ethnic minorities continues to emerge. The report therefore begins by providing a brief overview of the political dynamics that have shaped access to services and the response to COVID-19. Then follows a discussion on COVID-19 notification and testing, as well as the preventive measures that have been put in place to deal with the increase in COVID-19 cases. The discussion then turns to the impacts on livelihoods, access to different forms of support and the state of health care and education.