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Desperate COVID Families Hoist Flags For Donations in Myanmar's Cities

2021-07-28 -- Families stricken with COVID-19 are hoisting flags above their homes in Myanmar's most populated cities to solicit much-needed donations during a third wave of the coronavirus that critics say has been poorly mismanaged by the military regime.

Aid groups and volunteers launched the campaign on social media in recent days, calling on needy families quarantining because of an infected loved one to display the flags—white for food and yellow for medication—so that they know where to donate supplies.

The campaign, which allows for groups to anonymously assist households, comes after authorities began arresting social activists and healthcare volunteers in an entrapment scheme involving false requests for aid, sources told RFA's Myanmar Service.

Ko Myo, who lives in eastern Yangon's Thingangyun township, told RFA that he had raised a white flag after his 76-year-old mother became sick and he needed to take off time from work to care for her, leaving him with little money to buy food.

"In the beginning, I thought I'd have to rely on myself—I even had to pawn my bicycle to get [my mother] to the clinic," he said.

"After finding out about the campaign online, I talked to my neighbors and [raised a flag], and I received help. It was wonderful. I got assistance from groups and individuals, and even some well-wishers from as far away as Mandalay."

Daw Htwe Yin, a vendor from eastern Yangon's North Dagon township, told RFA that after she was no longer able to work, she displayed a white flag on her roof and donations soon followed.

"After I asked for help online for food, I received dried noodles and cooking oil and rice," she said.

"At the moment, I only need food, as I can't leave my home to run my shop. I really want to say thank you to those who have helped me."

Myanmar is struggling with a devastating third wave of COVID-19 infections, the number of which rose Wednesday to a total of 279,119 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 7,845 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 936 people and arresting 5,400, 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.

More than 4,600 people have died from COVID-19 over the past two months, according to the junta's Ministry of Health and Sports, although the actual number is believed to be substantially higher, based on reports by charity groups that provide free burial services.

The junta said Tuesday that it would build 10 new crematoriums in Yangon that can handle a total of more than 3,000 bodies each day, but the announcement drew criticism from members of the public who say authorities should be spending money to control the spread of the coronavirus, rather than on measures to deal with the dead.

A failure to act

A member of the Healthy Youth welfare group in Yangon's Mayangone township, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said her organization decided to provide food and medical aid to those hoisting the flags because the government had failed to act.

"Some of them are really sick and the family can't afford to go out shopping. For people like that, our group buys and sends stuff," she said.

"Some [donors] pay the cost of the merchandise. We don't charge any delivery fees. For those who don't have money, we even provide a small amount of money from our funds."

She said her group can only assist about 30 of the households who have asked for help, due to financial constraints.

Min Han Htet, chairman of the Dagon University Students Union, said the junta is "doing nothing" to help people who are suffering during the third wave of COVID.

"People are facing not one problem, but two during this period. Many are suffering from the aftereffects of the military coup. Unfortunately, the third wave of COVID is raging uncontrollably, but we just have to rely on ourselves," he said.

"People need food to be well-nourished. The next step is to have enough medicine. The last step is health care. That's what the yellow flag is for—to get medical help."

Min Han Htet said help can be sought through the Facebook page "COVID-19 True Information Myanmar," and that those who make requests will be connected to charity groups that manage donations.

Junta to blame

Meanwhile, the junta is arresting aid volunteers helping homes with flags raised. On July 24, soldiers in central Yangon's Sanchaung township arrested several volunteers who were delivering medicine and food to flag-bearing houses, only to free them later.

Min Han Htet said the junta is responsible for those who have died as a result of its obstruction.

"Right now, while we people are helping each other, the junta is harassing and arresting volunteers and committing acts that are truly unethical," he said.

"They are committing crimes and violating human rights. The main culprit for all these deaths from COVID is the junta."

A cursory investigation by RFA documented 83 homes with flags raised in Yangon during the four days from July 20 to 23, but the actual number is much higher, according to aid groups.

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

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