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Radio Free Asia

Myanmar Front-line Medical Workers Face Discrimination Amid COVID-19 Fight

2020-04-28 -- Front line medical workers in Myanmar's fight against the coronavirus pandemic are being shunned by neighbors and landlords who fear infection from them, they told RFA Tuesday as experts warned that discrimination would reduce the number of people willing to help with the crisis.

A volunteer driver from in the Sagaing region capital who had driven a COVID-19 patient to the hospital was assigned to quarantine himself in a house for two weeks, but had to move after neighbors opposed his stay.

"They said they are afraid of getting infected, but they don't usually wear a face mask when they go out. And they rejected us for handling the suspect patients although we were in complete PPE suit," said Hein Zaw Htet, a driver for emergency volunteer group in Sagaing town told RFA's Myanmar Service.

"Only half of the people in town have good health knowledge," he said.

"I feel sad as our work is not appreciated. We risked our lives to protect the town from infection," added the volunteer driver.

The volunteers and health care workers said they have been watched closely in their neighborhoods.

"I feel dejected but I am more worried that this discrimination will hinder the health care work," said Aye Mi San, a nurse from Hlaing Thar Yar hospital in Yangon.

"If the public won't cooperate, it will be a disaster, she said. "Being overcautious will lead to the discrimination. We have to work hard to fix these wrong perceptions."

'This is not acceptable'

RFA has learned also that nurses who stay at hostels in Yangon, the commercial capital and largest city, are losing their lodging as fearful hostel owners have suspended their rental agreements.

"Being vigilant is good, but they are going to extremes," said Ba Tint, a volunteer from an emergency humanitarian group in Sagaing.

"This is not acceptable. They should show solidarity with the front-line workers during this pandemic."

Dr, Win Lwin Thein, vice chairman of Myanmar Medical Association, told RFA such discrimination could cause medical workers and volunteers to walk away.

"It will have consequences. These front-line workers will abandon their positions. Humanitarian workers will also stop their work. "

RFA sought comment from the Ministry of Health and Sport but no spokesperson was available.

Following the launch on Monday of a national volunteer steering committee chaired by the State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, Myanmar's de facto leader faced calls to address a shortfall of medical equipment and staff.

"In this period of coronavirus epidemic, Myanmar was not ready for fighting against it, and also centralism, as well as shortages of medical equipment and skilled staff are the causes of difficulties in concurring the disease," Dr. Myint Myint Sein, an anesthesiologist in Pyi hospital, told Aung San Suu Kyi in a teleconference.

She was a coronavirus patient after she was infected with COVID-19 from a patient in a hospital had no proper personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical staff.

"While the patient's condition was very serious, there was a long discussion of how to treat it, and the instructions from the center were not clear. During treatment, I was infected due to shortage of well-trained manpower and medical equipment," said the doctor, who has since recovered.

Internet shutdown causes harm

Aung San Suu Kyi replied that: "While there are so many needs in the health sector, the government has been trying to raise public health standards."

"Coronavirus happened suddenly and we are trying to combat it with the resources we have. We are trying to use resources where COVID-19 patients are found. We have to look the costs, too." she said.

Myanmar, whose fight against the coronavirus is complicated by armed conflicts across the country, has allotted 2.4 billion Kyats for corona prevention in internal refugee camps in Rakhine, Shan, Kachin, Karen and Chin states, Win Myat Aye, the Union Minister for Social Welfare, Relief and Resettlement, told RFA.

"Securing the water supply is most important. The IDPs need to wash their hands and take care of their personal hygiene," the minister said, referring to internally displaced persons.

The funding allotted for IDP camps will be used to set up hand washing stations and distribute the soap, hand sanitizers and facemasks.

Last month, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) urged the government to take immediate measures to reduce the risk of an outbreak of the contagious pathogen, officially called COVID-19, among the estimated 350,000 displaced civilians in Myanmar's Rakhine, Kachin, Shan, Chin, and Kayin states.

Overcrowding, restrictions on humanitarian aid, limits on the movements of displaced persons, and a government-mandated internet service shutdown in parts of Rakhine and neighboring Chin state mean that people in these regions are particularly vulnerable to a virus outbreak, HRW's statement said.

Myanmar civil society groups have repeatedly appealed to the government to lift the internet ban in ten townships in Rakhine and Chin State, zones under armed conflict between the government military and the ethnic-Rakhine Arakan Army.

The government hasn't respond, but Win Myat Aye said the government will broadcast coronavirus prevention information on loud speakers or through text messages through telecom service providers.

Khin Maung Latt, MP for Rathedaung Township in Rakhine state, said these methods are not as effective as the internet.

"These are very obsolete methods. They can simply lift the internet ban and allow everyone in the region to access important information through internet. It is the most effective way," he said.

"Some areas in the region are not accessible even for the local civilians, let alone for the government staff who will come to provide humanitarian aid."

Reported by Waiyan Moe Myint, Wai Mar Tun, and Zarni Htun for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Maung Maung Nyo and Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Paul Eckert.

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