Nearly 200 people in northwest Myanmar’s strife-torn Kalay township are believed to have died of COVID-19 in June alone, with many left untreated as medical staff joined anti-junta protests or were arrested by the military, sources said Tuesday.
Myanmar’s efforts to contain the coronavirus were dealt a substantial blow on Feb. 1, when the military orchestrated a coup d’état, claiming that a landslide victory by Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy (NLD) in the country’s November 2020 elections was the result of widespread voter fraud—launching the country into chaos.
The junta has yet to provide evidence for its claims and has violently suppressed mass demonstrations against the takeover, killing at least 883 people and arresting 5,224, according to the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).
Tens of thousands of people have walked off the job to join the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in opposition to the military, bringing services such as health care to a near standstill. In Myanmar’s remote border regions, where residents have formed People’s Defense Force (PDF) militias and engaged in fierce fighting with government troops, access to medical services is even more curtailed, sources said.
As of Tuesday, Myanmar had confirmed a total of 155,697 cases of COVID-19 in the country and recorded at least 3,320 deaths, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. Sagaing region’s Kalay township—a population center of around 400,000 people that has been the scene of some of the worst fighting between the military and the PDF in recent months—accounts for some 5.5 percent of the toll with an estimated 181 deaths, an aid worker told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
Of the 181 deaths, 51 were confirmed to have been infected with COVID-19 at area hospitals, while the remaining 130 died at home after exhibiting symptoms of the disease without being officially diagnosed, said the worker, speaking on condition of anonymity out of fear of reprisal.
“[COVID-19] deaths at home are more common … There aren’t enough doctors and nurses or oxygen at the hospitals—that’s why people want to treat their sick at home,” said the source.
“We consider everyone who dies outside of the hospitals a suspect COVID case. If you look at the family members of the deceased, two or three of them tend to be infected.”
A township elder told RFA that funerals for COVID-19 victims are being “held daily” in Kalay and that this week marked the worst day for COVID-19 deaths in the township with 20 in a single day.
“These days there are funeral wakes in almost every ward,” he said. “It is everywhere.”
According to residents, the latest coronavirus outbreak in Kalay began in the third week of May and is believed to have made its way to the area via workers from neighboring Chin state, which like Sagaing, shares a border with India.
Ma Khine, the sister of a 41-year-old man who died from what is believed to have been COVID-19, told RFA that he had spent nine days at home without proper medication before succumbing to the disease.
“We didn’t want to take him to the hospital because we heard it was difficult and that we would not receive full care due to a lack of staff. The hospital operations were not on par as CDM health workers are still unable to return to work.”
Ma Khine said her brother’s wife was also infected with the virus but was treated at home and is now in good health.
Lack of oxygen
A treatment center has been set up in Kalay with the help of charity organizations to provide testing for COVID-19 and medical care to people who have tested positive for the disease.
A person who is currently being treated at the center told RFA that people had died there due to a lack of oxygen. He said there are only eight health workers and volunteers for more than 200 confirmed patients receiving care there.
“They’re trying their best,” the patient said. “Patients are kept just for 10 days, and after that they have to go home.”
Sources said there are six retail oxygen outlets in Kalay and patients who are receiving treatment at home must pay around 160,000 kyat (U.S. $98) per bottle, but sometimes the supplies run out.
Residents said they are now getting oxygen from Yangon and Mandalay with the help of donors but hope to resolve the supply issue by next week, as efforts are underway to reopen the plant, which has been shut down due to a lack of staff at the hospital.
Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, director of Myanmar’s Central Infectious Disease Control Department, told RFA Monday that she would not comment on the situation in Kalay, while attempts to contact Dr. Than Naing Soe, a director at the Ministry of Health, went unanswered Tuesday.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
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