Tasnim Nazeer looks at the impact of Myanmar’s denial of COVID-19 on its own citizens and the rest of the world.
As the world grapples with the unprecedented crisis of COVID-19, one country has decided to dismiss its existence.
The Myanmar Government has gone on record to state that the country has no cases of the Coronavirus to date, with spokesman Zaw Htay pronouncing in a statement that the absence of reported infection is due to Myanmar’s “lifestyle and diet”. He added that, because Myanmar’s citizens generally pay for purchases with cash instead of credit cards, they were “unlikely” to spread the virus.
Myanmar’s defying of reality is putting the lives of its citizens at risk, but also those around the world. The Coronavirus has been declared a pandemic by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and its highly infectious nature has already resulted in countries such as Italy, Spain and France placing their populations in lockdown. Whilst we are all being advised to self isolate or socially distance, Myanmar has placed no official precautionary measures on its citizens, leaving its society at large at risk.
What started as an outbreak in Wuhan, China, has quickly spiralled across nations, borders and countries around the world. How can Myanmar claim not to have been hit by the virus?
Aung San Suu Kyi, the country’s de facto leader, has also backed claims that there are no cases of the virus in the country at all, whilst failing to inform the public about the more than 350,000 confirmed cases of infection and 15,000 death toll globally. In a national televised address to the nation, Suu Kyi stated: “Until now, no one in our country is infected with COVID-19” .
But, reports have surfaced of “suspicious respiratory-related deaths” in Myanmar, but its authorities have insisted that these were not related to the Coronavirus. Eleven patients with symptoms indicative of the virus died while under ‘observation’ in Myanmar in the areas of Shah and Rakhine states, according to reports – but the Government denied that these were COVID-19 related deaths. Despite this, the country has decided to close its borders to other countries in case the virus spreads to it, without acknowledging that it may already be well underway in Myanmar.
Penny Green, Professor of Law and Globalisation at Queen Mary University of London and Director of the International State Crime Initiative, told Byline Times that “denial is one of the hallmarks of criminal states”.
“For decades Myanmar has denied its genocide against the Rohingya,” she said. “Other minorities, like the Kachin and the Shan, have suffered appalling abuses by Government and military forces – all of which have again been denied. That Aung San Suu Kyi’s Government is now lying to the whole nation about the reality of COVID-19 displays a characteristic disregard for the health and wellbeing of ordinary people. On the other hand, you can be sure that the elite have protected themselves from the virus.”
Myanmar is a country that is extremely vulnerable to the virus, sharing a 2,227 km border with China. Neighbouring countries include Bangladesh, Thailand and India – all of which have reported cases of COVID-19.
The Government spokesman Zaw Htay said during a press conference that doubts about the lack of Coronavirus cases are down to “fake news” circulating online.
Dr Maung Zarni, co-founder of the Free Rohingya Coalition, told Byline Times that “Myanmar’s official denial that it is not affected by the Coronavirus which originated from China, the country with which shares over 1,000 miles of porous borders, is as utterly farcical as societally irresponsible”.
“Aung San Suu Kyi delivered this denialist official message to the country and the world at large,” he said. “Neither she nor her military partners in power have any credibility when it comes to the most important policy issues and realities, from democratic transition and the Rohingya genocide to economic and ecological crises and the so-called peace process.”
The Government is aware that action is needed as it cancelled celebrations to mark the new year, Thingyan, amid news of three suspicious deaths, However, it is still failing to provide accurate public information. The country is already named by WHO as not being in a position to handle a pandemic on this scale. Findings show that 13 out of its 15 states and regions were below WHO’s recommended minimum number of one medical doctor per 1,000 people. Myanmar is also on the list of 57 “crisis” countries that face critical healthcare workforce shortages.
Will any action, if it does come, be too little too late?