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Radio Free Asia

Opponents Say Myanmar Government Was Slow to Tackle Second Wave of COVID-19

2020-09-29 -- Political parties faulted the Aung San Suu Kyi government's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic Tuesday because of Myanmar's rapidly rising number of coronavirus cases, saying a slow and poorly coordinated response allowed the predicted second wave of the virus to ravage the country's largest city and spread nationwide.

Myanmar, which holds nationwide elections in November, has the fourth-highest number of confirmed coronavirus cases among the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), but is third in deaths behind the Philippines and Indonesia.

As of Tuesday, the country of 54 million people recorded 12,425 lab-confirmed COVID-19 cases with nearly 800 new ones, and 284 total fatalities, including 28 new deaths, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. The number of recoveries stands at 3,391.

All states and regions in Myanmar, except tiny Kayah state on the border with Thailand, have reported coronavirus-positive patients, with the majority of cases and the highest number of deaths in the populous Yangon region and Rakhine state in the west.

On Tuesday, the ministry reported more than 8,300 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Yangon region, and 1,527 in Rakhine state, whose pandemic problems are compounded by a war that has displaced 220,000 people since late 2018.

In response to the surge, which began on Aug. 16, officials in the hardest-hit regions and states have imposed lockdowns, stay-at-home orders, travel restrictions and have set up additional COVID-19 testing and treatment centers and quarantine facilities. Medical workers have been mobilized and sent to hospitals and clinics in Yangon and Rakhine state.

The central government has allocated more than 1 trillion kyats (U.S. $747.5 million) to fight the spread of the highly contagious respiratory illness. It also has started using antigen and test kits from South Korea to test people for COVID-19.

"Our rules and regulations are not meant to restrict people," Myanmar State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said in a speech aired on state television on Sept. 21.

"We intend to contain the disease," she said.

'Like cats chasing their own tails'

Several political parties, which are competing in general elections on Nov. 8, faulted the ruling National League for Democracy (NLD) government's management of the pandemic as tardy and insufficient.

Thein Tun Oo, spokesman for the main opposition Union Solidarity and Development Party (USDP), said the ruling government failed to communicate effectively to the people when issuing COVID-related orders and instructions.

"They should be issuing the orders and guidelines in clear, concise, and understandable terms so that laymen can easily comprehend them," he said. "Their announcements are like cats chasing their own tails. It can take time trying to make sense of them."

"People are reluctant to follow their orders and guidelines since they are not clear," he said.

Ye Naing Aung, general secretary of the People's Party, told RFA that "the government didn't act in time to prevent the spread of the outbreak to other regions."

"It is a time when the government should review what it has been doing," he said, suggesting that election preparations had delayed the pandemic response.

Kyaw Zeya, vice chair of the People's Pioneer Party, noted that the country's health minister, Dr. Myint Htwe, had warned of second wave of the virus but the government still didn't take adequate measures in advance.

"When the second wave actually arrived, their response was all wrong," Kyaw Zeya told RFA. "They didn't have a specific plan on how to respond to the second wave of the outbreak."

"Now, there are shortages of quarantine centers, [and] the virus testing facilities are not working properly," he said. "These are all problems that could have been avoided."

Exponential increase

Despite the heavy criticism, NLD spokesman Monywa Aung Shin said he has confidence in the government's response to the health crisis and believes that the number of new COVID-19 infections will drop in October.

"I have absolute faith in the leadership of the State Counselor Daw [honorific] Aung San Suu Kyi," he said. "She has compassion and pays attention to the details."

Aung San Suu Kyi has issued statements about COVID-19 on a daily basis and has worked to have more quarantine centers, Monywa Aung Shin said.

"I think the number of new cases will decline in mid-October," he said.

But Ye Myo Hein, executive director of the Tagaing Political Studies Institute, noted that the central government has been weak when it comes to working with state and regional governments on COVID-19 prevention measures.

"The greatest weakness of the government is that it lacks mechanisms to coordinate all branches of the government. Now, their responses always come only after the outbreaks."

"The [number of] new cases is increasing exponentially," he said. "It is very challenging for all parties to work together to contain the virus."

Chinese city sets example

Myanmar's largest city and commercial hub Yangon, home to 4.3 million people, is at the center of the second COVID-19 wave with the largest number of new confirmed cases daily.

Hundreds of people believed to be infected with COVID-19 in Yangon region, are being told daily to self-isolate at home because of a lack of resources and overcrowded testing and quarantine facilities, according to a doctor who oversees the more than 20 government-sponsored fever clinics in the region.

"We send them back home with specific instructions on how to self- quarantine," Dr. Kyaw Min Tun told RFA on Tuesday.

Health care workers normally would send those suspected of infection to hospitals for lab tests, but now all the hospitals are full, he said.

"It could be as many as 300 potential positive patients that we have to send back home," Kyaw Min said.

Dr. Khin Khin Gyi, director of the Central Contagious Disease Prevention and Eradication Department at the Ministry of Health and Sports, said health authorities can test a maximum of 5,000 patients daily for COVID-19.

"We are already overloaded," she said. "We can say that the current increase of 500 to 600 new cases every day is the peak."

People's Pioneer Party official Kyaw Zeya pointed to the Chinese town of Ruili in Yunnan province, which sits across the Shweli River border from the Shan state town of Muse, as showing the right way to tackle the pandemic.

Chinese officials locked down the entire town earlier this month after city administrators discovered that two coronavirus-positive Myanmar migrants had crossed illegally between the two countries. Chinese officials tested roughly 100,000 people for the virus after those two cases.

"We've seen the Chinese government take effective actions such as locking down the whole town of Ruili and getting everyone tested," Kyaw Zeya said. "Of the 100,000 they tested, only person from Myanmar tested positive. This is exemplary."

Reported by Nay Myo Htun and Soe San Aung for RFA's Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.

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