Floods Add to Misery as Myanmar Struggles to Control Third Wave of COVID-19

Already grappling with a deadly third wave of COVID-19 infections in a health crisis made worse by chaos from the military coup, southern Myanmar was inundated by severe flooding over the weekend that hampered the efforts of healthcare workers and aid groups.

Heavy rains battered the southern states of Kayin and Mon and Tanintharyi region beginning on Sunday, impacting as many as 3,000 people. More than 100 in Kayin’s Hlaingbwe had to be evacuated, according to a relief official from the area. No deaths have been reported.

In Mon state’s Ye, Kyaikmaraw and Chaungzon townships, the rising Thanlwin River limited movement and frustrated efforts to treat patients infected with COVID-19, An Nu, a resident of Mawlamyine’s Shwedaung ward, told RFA’s Myanmar Service.

“It is raining heavily right now. Cars and motorbikes are useless now. Houses that are level with the roads are all flooded,” he said.

“Daily wage earners living hand to mouth are in big trouble. They now must rely on donations from well-wishers.”

An Nu said that despite the high number of COVID-19 infections in the area, people are being forced to shelter alongside patients in flooded homes, putting them at risk of catching the coronavirus.

Nay Myo Aung, chairman of the Ramanya Emergency Relief Association, said no arrangements could be made for flood victims as his organization is too busy treating COVID-19 patients and cremating the dead.

“Today we are distributing meal packages to about 60 households, but the water is still rising. We can’t set up relief camps yet. People just have to stay in their flooded homes and so we are sending meal packets because they cannot do any cooking,” he said.

“We don’t know what the government’s plan is or what to do now. Should we go to the rescue of flood victims? Should we carry on with the burial of those who died with COVID-19? We also have to deal with providing treatment to COVID patients as well. We’re too busy.”

Myanmar is struggling with a devastating third wave of COVID-19 infections, the number of which rose Monday to a total of 274,155 since the country’s first recorded case in March last year. The official monthly infection rate has jumped from around two percent of those tested in April 2020 during the first wave to 23 percent earlier this month, and at least 7,507 have died in the country.

Meanwhile, the country’s hospitals are operating at maximum capacity and turning away all but the most seriously ill. Others must settle for treatment at home, but shortages have left families scrambling to secure basic medical supplies, including the oxygen they need to keep their loved ones alive.

Efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 in Myanmar were dealt a serious blow when the country’s military seized power on Feb. 1, claiming that a landslide victory by the NLD in the country’s November 2020 ballot was the result of voter fraud.

The junta has provided no evidence to back up its claims and has violently responded to widespread protests, killing 934 people and arresting 5,370, according to the Bangkok-based Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (AAPP).

Tens of thousands of people, including many healthcare professionals, have left their jobs to join a nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) in opposition to junta rule.

Dr. Aung Naing Oo, a lawmaker from Chaungzon township, said the floods have worsened the situation for people suffering from COVID-19.

“It’s affected the transportation of oxygen and patients, as well as the operation of factories in the state. This flooding has totally exacerbated our problems.”

When contacted by RFA Nai Latima, a junta official in Mon state, referred calls to the central government.

Southern Myanmar often receives heavy rain at this time of year and flooding can be mitigated if proper steps are taken, but authorities have failed to make the necessary preparations, relief groups say.

Flooding in Hlaingbwe, in Myanmar's Karen state, July 26, 2021. Citizen journalist
Flooding in Hlaingbwe, in Myanmar's Karen state, July 26, 2021. Citizen journalist
Oxygen plants in Rakhine state

As the weather complicated efforts to control the spread of COVID-19 in Kayin and Mon states and Tanintharyi region, civil society groups pushed forward on Monday with plans to build oxygen production plants in Rakhine state, which had been devastated by deadly ethnic violence in recent years.

Relief groups say the number of COVID-19 deaths has risen dramatically in the Rakhine capital Sittwe and townships of Mrauk-U, Kyauktaw, Sittwe, Minbya, Pauktaw, Buthidaung and Maungdaw in recent weeks, prompting them to turn to donors for assistance because they can no longer afford to wait for the junta to deal with the crisis.

“Oxygen has been in greater demand during this third wave and its lack of availability has led to more deaths,” said Zaw Zaw Tun, who is working to set up an oxygen plant in Sittwe.

“The authorities are inefficient. If the virus becomes more contagious, there will be more deaths. So, we are now working together to meet the needs of the people through the cooperation of the people.”

Hla Myint, chairman of the Maungdaw Oxygen Plant Construction Committee, said people of different religions had agreed to work together to overcome the epidemic.

“There are three religions in our city: Buddhism, Islam and Hinduism. While their beliefs are different, the people can only overcome their problems if they work together,” he said.

“With that belief in mind, we have mobilized them, and they are deeply involved ... People of all religions come to hospitals for medical treatment. So, we came up with this idea [to produce our own oxygen].”

The oxygen plant in Maungdaw is expected to be completed within 45 days and will be able to produce 80-120 40-liter cylinders per day.

The family member of a COVID-19 patient told RFA that her loved one died due to a lack of oxygen at Sittwe General Hospital on July 19.

“We heard they had enough oxygen at the hospital, so we went with full confidence that he could be saved,” the family member said. “What we actually experienced was that our patient ran out of oxygen during the night and died in the morning.”

RFA contacted Rakhine State Health Department director Dr. Kyi Lwin by telephone Monday, but he refused to comment.

Aung Naing Lin, a doctor at Maungdaw Hospital, said more than a dozen patients are currently receiving oxygen and that it would be difficult to take in more people.

“COVID-19 is a disease that requires a lot of oxygen for treatment. If there are more than 20 patients in one hospital, it won’t be easy to get them all enough oxygen,” he said.

Hla Thein, a junta official in Rakhine state, was not immediately available for comment Monday. A post to his Facebook account said that around 125 oxygen tanks had been delivered to the Sittwe, Kyaukphyu and Maungdaw hospitals, as well as the Military Hospital in Ann township, and that work in underway to produce 60 cylinders a day in Thandwe township.

On July 22, Rakhine state authorities and Maj. Gen. Htin Latt Oo—the head of the junta’s Western Command—announced that they planned to take over the construction of an oxygen plant being built by civil society groups in Mrauk-U, resulting in an angry backlash by residents.

Civil society groups say there are currently 10 oxygen plants constructed with the help of donors in Rakhine state. The Rakhine State Public Health Department said that as of Monday, 110 people have died from the third wave of COVID-19 in the state, while 2,204 people have been infected. 

Chinese vaccines in Wa region

Another area of Myanmar where people are taking COVID-19 prevention into their own hands is in the rebel-controlled Wa region of northeastern Shan state, along the country’s border with China, where officials told RFA that nearly everyone has been inoculated with vaccines provided by Beijing.

Nyi Yan, the spokesman for the United Wa State Army (UWSA) said that the Chinese government provided medical assistance to people in the region because of longstanding ties between the Wa and China, as well as to prevent a possible spread of COVID-19 across the border.

“We have been working on vaccination programs throughout Wa State for a long time,” he said.

“Almost everyone has been given their shots. Vaccinations were carried out right down to the grassroots level. A lot has been done. As far as I know, the vaccines were from China.”

Wa officials said that the first dose of the two-shot vaccine had been rolled out in May and the follow-up jab in June. They did not provide the name of the vaccine or any detailed statistics.

Nearly 500,000 people live in the Wa region, meaning that the Chinese government would have had to provide residents with a million vaccinations.

An official with an unnamed ethnic armed group told RFA that the Chinese government had in the past few months provided ethnic groups active along the border with Chinese-made Sinovac COVID-19 vaccines with the help of the UWSA.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.

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