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Radio Free Asia

No Positive Cases as Myanmar Tests For Coronavirus Amid Health System Concerns

2020-03-03 -- Myanmar heath officials have tested at least 45 people for possible coronavirus infections since January, with none testing positive, according to health officials, amid growing concern that the Southeast Asian nation's inadequate health care system will not be able to effectively deal with an outbreak.

The five most recent suspected cases – two Chinese nationals, one from the Netherlands, and two Burmese – tested negative for the virus, called COVID-19, according to a Health Ministry statement issued Monday.

One of the two Burmese suspected of having the virus had stayed with a Myanmar migrant in Singapore, who was recently confirmed positive.

"We placed them under observation after they visited the clinics with fevers," Tun Myint, a doctor at Yangon Region Health Department, told RFA on Tuesday. "All five of them are now getting better."

The Health Ministry has been observing the conditions of the 45 suspected coronavirus carriers since the beginning of the year, officials said.

Kyaw Swar Oo, a physician tracking the spread of the coronavirus, questioned the ability of Myanmar's health care system to contain the virus should it break out there.

"As you all know, the health care in the country is not good," he said. "Health care professionals are struggling to provide good care. Everyone from the medical community is concerned about whether we would be able to contain an outbreak in the country."

Migrant workers lash out

The Myanmar Embassy in China meanwhile says it is helping migrant workers in Chinese factories to return home amid the coronavirus spread, but that workers must present their official documents to local police for processing before they can leave.

On Tuesday, the embassy said it had recently transported 154 Myanmar workers from factories in Shandong to the town of Chinshwehaw in Shan state on the China-Myanmar border.

It also warned Burmese citizens working in Chinese factories to be mindful of scammers who may try to take advantage of them in their attempts to return home.

More than 500 Myanmar migrant workers in Weihai, a coastal city on eastern China's Shandong province, informed the embassy via video that their Chinese employers will not let them leave the factories.

They conveyed their dissatisfaction with the embassy's recent announcement that it had helped workers return home, shouting on the video, "The embassy is lying. You all can see we are here. No one can go home."

A top official at the Myanmar Embassy in Beijing, who did not want to be named, told RFA that the embassy is working with Chinese authorities to help the workers.

As long as diplomats are aware of migrant workers who want to return to Myanmar, they will ask local police for assistance, the official said.

Chinese authorities have agreed to assist with the processing of any returnees, the diplomat said, adding that workers will likely have a long wait while Chinese police obtain provincial permits for them to travel the 2,000-mile distance from Shandong to the Myanmar border.

Kyaw Khaing Lin, secretary of the Agriculture & Farmer Federation Myanmar (AFFM) in the town of Aunglan in central Myanmar's Magway region, said returning home would be problematic for some.

"Burmese workers are working there illegally, so most of them don't have mobile phones," he said. "They also have the language barrier. Therefore, they face difficulties in connecting with authorities and fear they will be arrested."

About 150 Myanmar migrants from villages in Aunglan work in factories in China, he said.

Ship barred from docking

In Myanmar's Yangon region, authorities on Monday canceled the stopover of a tourist cruise ship carrying more than 800 passengers and crew because the vessel traveled to countries with a high number of confirmed coronavirus cases.

Myanmar's Ministry of Hotels and Tourism decided to bar the Silver Spirit cruise ship from entering Myanmar's maritime territory and docking on Wednesday over concerns about the spread of COVID-19, said the ministry's deputy director general Myint Htwe.

"We decide to bar this cruise ship in accordance with international procedures because the ship could be carrying virus carriers," he told RFA. "We made this decision after we consulted with the Ministry of Health."

Operated by Monaco-based Silversea Cruises, the luxury cruise ship carrying more than 800 passengers, mostly from the United Kingdom, planned to dock for four days at the Thilawa Multipurpose International Terminal, 16 miles south of Yangon.

The vessel's last stop before reaching Myanmar was in the resort town of Phuket, Thailand. The Southeast Asia country has had 43 confirmed cases of the virus and one death.

Thet Lwin Toh, managing director of Myanmar Voyages International Travel Company who arranged the itinerary for the vessel's stopover in Myanmar, said his company on Monday received a government order to cancel the arrangement.

"It's right to bar this ship from docking, as the situation is very complicated now," he said.

The Silver Spirit last visited Myanmar in November 2019.

Reported by Zarni Htun, Nayrein Kyaw, and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Nayrein Kyaw and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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