Yangon Cemeteries Overflowing as Myanmar Struggles to Contain Third Wave of COVID-19

Pandemic policies of authoritarian Southeast Asian states are drawing fire from the U.N. and rights groups.
2021-07-14
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Yangon Cemeteries Overflowing as Myanmar Struggles to Contain Third Wave of COVID-19 People line up with their tanks to refill oxygen during a COVID-19 outbreak in Yangon, Myanmar, July 14, 2021.
Reuters

Cemeteries in Myanmar’s largest city Yangon are overflowing with corpses as hundreds of people each day are dying of COVID-19 related causes, aid groups in the city told RFA Wednesday, as many observers blamed the ruling military junta for a callous pandemic response.

Myanmar is dealing with a third wave of outbreaks of the disease, and Yangon’s four cemeteries are ill-equipped to handle daily death tolls of about 500 people amid an oxygen shortage that has gripped the entire country.

Almost all of Yangon’s coronavirus deaths are due to hypoxia, when oxygen fails to reach bodily tissues, a common symptom in serious COVID-19 cases, but Myanmar’s military junta two days ago denied that the oxygen shortage exists.

RFA reported Monday that the military government had begun restricting supplies on claims that people are hoarding oxygen, ordering suppliers not to fill cylinders for individuals.

A nurse in Shan State told RFA’s Myanmar Service that oxygen shortages were not an issue in the country during the country’s second wave of the coronavirus, which occurred prior to the junta’s Feb. 1 overthrow of the democratically elected government under former State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) party.

An official from a Yangon-based humanitarian organization told RFA Wednesday on condition of anonymity that the city’s cemeteries are overwhelmed.

“There are four cemeteries in Yangon. The total number of bodies sent to these four cemeteries is over 500 a day. About 95 percent of those who died at home die of hypoxia. Of those 500 deaths, 450 die at home,” the official said, adding that the cemeteries can only handle about 50 bodies per day.

“We all must wear PPE to bring in the bodies. We had to stop taking calls at about 10:30 this morning, because we could not take in any more bodies,” the official said.

More than 200 people each day are buried at the Yayway cemetery alone, and they had to be lined up for cremation. There is additionally a shortage of hearses to transport bodies to the cemeteries, so ambulances are picking up the slack.

Aid groups confirmed to RFA that an oxygen shortage began last weekend when the junta banned the private sale of oxygen.

001Dead bodies piling up at  Yayway crematorium in Yangon on Jul 13_Credit Bo Sein.jpeg
Dead bodies piling up at Yayway crematorium in Yangon, Myanmar, July 13, 2021. Credit: Bo Sein

Making the problem worse, hospitals are no longer accepting oxygen-starved patients, according to a Yangon-based aid worker.

“The main problem for those who badly need oxygen is a lack of doctors and voluntary workers. This is why both the private and government hospitals cannot accept these patients,” the aid worker said.

“The Yangon General Hospital, The Sanpya General Hospital and the North Okkalapa Hospital are still taking in serious patients, but the numbers are limited,” said the aid worker.

Another aid worker told RFA some patients had to be sent back home unable to find hospitals that would agree to treat them. He said there was only enough oxygen for about 15 percent of patients. The junta has not yet lifted a curfew on Yangon and families of those in need of oxygen must wait until 4 am to leave their houses in search of more oxygen.

002Funeral coffins lining up for cremation at Yayway crematorium in Yangon on Jul 12_Credit Bo Sein.jpeg
Funeral coffins lined up for cremation at Yayway crematorium in Yangon, Myanmar, Jul 12, 2021. Credit: Bo Sein

A member of a charity told RFA that as soon as the curfew ends, people begin lining up at factories to get a single cylinder of oxygen.

“We are still on the road right now. We are going to South Dagon to buy oxygen tanks. You can’t buy them easily. We have to line up and the queues begin at around four in the morning, and we still couldn’t get any on some days,” he said, requesting anonymity for his personal safety.

“The South Dagon Industrial Zone cannot produce enough. They can make about 100 cylinders a day, sometimes 150. They are also trying their best with everything they have. The number of people in line is usually between 200 and 250. If we can’t get it from this factory, we must line up at the next one. If you want the bigger cylinders, you can’t get it in one day. You have to wait until the next day,” the charity member said.

Elsewhere in the country, aid groups in the northwestern Sagaing region’s town of Kalay told RFA that 800 people have died in a little over a month due to coronavirus symptoms, including more than 330 since the beginning of July.

003Funeral coffins lining up for cremation at Yayway crematorium in Yangon on Jul 12_Credit Bo Sein (2).jpeg
Funeral coffins lined up for cremation at Yayway crematorium in Yangon, Myanmar, July 12, 2021. Credit: Bo Sein

Oxygen orders take almost a week to arrive from the closest large city, Mandalay, Ye Thiha Aung, the chairman of the Kalay Karyan Metta Social Welfare Association, told RFA.

“The death toll is still high in Kalay these days. We see 10 to 20 deaths daily. The problem we are facing is a lack of oxygen. We can only get oxygen from Mandalay, Yangon and Monywa, and we have to wait for up to six days," Ye Thiha Aung said.

Kalay needs about 500 oxygen tanks each day, but the town can produce only 100.

Junta leader Sr. Gen. Min Aung Hlaing on July 12 denied that there is an oxygen shortage in Myanmar at the second COVID Prevention Coordination Meeting.

A doctor told RFA on condition of anonymity that the general’s statement was the opposite of reality.

004Monks seen after funeral sermon at Yayway crematorium in Yangon as smoke rising from chimney on Jul 12_Credit Bo Sein.jpeg
Monks seen after a funeral sermon at Yayway crematorium in Yangon, Myanmar, as smoke rises from a chimney on July 12, 2021. Credit: Bo Sein

“They say there is enough oxygen, but what we see in practice is that the military council is controlling sales to the private sector and is only allowing sales to hospitals. They are also keeping some as reserves for themselves,” the doctor said.

“If you look at the situation in Kalay, you’ll see the reality. People there have been building their own oxygen plants, but the supply cannot meet their needs. The deaths are horrible. The public needs oxygen very badly,” said the doctor.

Myanmar’s National Unity Government (NUG), made up of lawmakers ousted by the military during the Feb. 1 coup, told RFA that it had evidence that the junta’s policies during the third wave were intended to harm people opposed to the coup, which constitutes crimes against humanity.

The junta’s restrictions limited the people’s access to healthcare, they said.

“Healthcare is a fundamental right for every human being, especially in the time of the pandemic,” Aung Myo Min, an internationally known human rights activist and the NUG’s minister for Human rights told RFA.

“The right to access to essential health care services, medical equipment and PPE materials, without discrimination, is a universally accepted human right. But, in Myanmar, what we have seen is the military and its related institutions have a monopoly on essential health care services and Covid-19 vaccines. This is a very serious violation of rights,” he said. 

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A man sits on empty oxygen canisters, as he waits to fill them up, outside a factory in Mandalay, Myanmar on July 13, 2021, amid a surge in Covid-19 coronavirus cases. Credit: AFP

“Lately, we have witnessed that authorities have hindered the people’s access to oxygenation equipment for COVID-19 patients. They are supposed to make this equipment widely available to the public. Far from that, we have seen many cases where soldiers confiscate the oxygen tanks and equipment… or threaten volunteers and humanitarian groups distributing them,” Aung Myo Min said.

“These actions are politically motivated. They are deliberate measures to punish the people who resisted their coup. As a result, a large number of people died… They intended to weaken the resistance movements by these deaths. I am pretty sure these actions are crimes against humanity,” he said.

He also accused the junta of prioritizing healthcare access to military members and their families.

“There are funds from international organizations and COVID-19 vaccines acquired under NLD government administration. They are supposed to use these funds to effectively respond to the outbreak. They are using these resources to protect the military members and their beneficiaries only. By ignoring public safety, they intend to stop the street protests. And they intend to punish the people who have opposed them.” 

On Tuesday, the junta’s Ministry of Health and Sports reported 109 COVID-19 deaths, bringing the official tally to 4,036.

Vietnamese fines are ‘abuse of power’

Elsewhere in Southeast Asia, authorities in Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh City reported Tuesday that they had fined thousands of people for ignoring strict social distancing orders in place since July 9.

Authorities in the city collected almost five billion dong [US $218,000] in fines from people who were found in violation of Directive 16, mostly for selling suspended goods and services, gathering in groups of more than two or otherwise being unnecessarily out and about.

Lawyers told RFA that the fines were an abuse of power in violation of current laws, while residents complained that the fines were unfair considering how they have been economically impacted by the pandemic.

Bui Quang Thang, a Hanoi-based lawyer, told RFA’s Vietnamese Service that Directive 16 is an internal communication and therefore cannot be used to punish the public. 

“According to the Law on Promulgation of Legal Documents, the Prime Minister’s directives are not legal documents. Based on that, the fact that someone fines people or run news stories about people being fined for violating Directive 16 does not comply with current laws,” said Thang.

“It might be correct for the government to apply 2020 Decree 117’s Article 12, Clause 1a to fine people for not wearing masks, but it would be wrong if they tried to use this article to sanction people for going out without a legitimate reason,” he said.

If people go out while wearing a mask and practicing social distancing, they cannot be considered as not taking protection measures, so any punishment on this basis is unconvincing, Thang said.

Also Tuesday, a document seemingly showing that authorities in the city set quotas for fines surfaced on social media.

The document, believed to have been issued by Go Vap district in the city’s Ward 6, told those working at a checkpoint in front of the Ward 6 People’s Committee to give out fines for “20 cases in each working shift.” It additionally said the target for each patrol team was “five cases for each working shift.”

Immediately after the information was made public, Nguyen Tri Dung, Chairman of the Go Vap district People’s Committee asked the ward to withdraw the orders.

Several residents told RFA that they were angered that that the Ward may have tried to use the pandemic to generate potentially millions of dollars in fines.

“I call it a… barbaric hunt amid all this misery for the people of Vietnam,” local musician Tuan Khanh told RFA.

“Those who are going out and are trying to get through check-points right now must have their reasons. You can’t penalize them,” he said, adding that the quota causes societal discontent, especially among the poor.

Another resident of the city, who declined to be named, told RFA that the people have no choice but to go out when they are running out of food. 

“The government says we only can go out with a reasonable excuse. They ask us to have certificates. For example, if you go to work, you’ll need a work permit. But how can you find certification for buying food or medicine? It's really unfair to the poor!"

As of Wednesday, Vietnam has confirmed 35,409 COVID-19 cases with 132 deaths.

Cambodia seals border to Vietnamese workers

Cambodia said it will seal its borders to people affiliated with Vietnamese companies starting July 18 for one month.

In a letter issued to the Vietnamese Embassy in Phnom Penh, the foreign ministry said Vietnamese workers and technicians would not be allowed to enter Cambodia and those in Cambodia would not be allowed to return home.  The ministry said there would be an exception for Vietnamese patients seeking treatment in Vietnam, diplomats, and civil servants with cross-border duties.

UN representatives, meanwhile, asked Phnom Penh to revoke a sub-decree on compulsory Covid-19 vaccination or take measures to ensure its compliance with international human rights standards. The sub-decree forces civil servants and the military to get vaccinated.

The request came in a statement issued by the Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in Cambodia, Vitit Muntarbhorn, and the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to be enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health, Tlaleng Mofokeng.

The Cambodian government has yet to respond to the statement, but Kata On, the spokesperson for Cambodia’s official Human Rights Committee told RFA’s Khmer Service Wednesday that the government does not have to respond to the inquiry because its measures are meant to curb the pandemic.

“We need to implement any measures that are useful for our society, so we don’t need to respond,” he said, but declined to explain why the government refuses to remove the vaccination order.

Local rights group ADHOC said forcing people, even public servants to vaccinate is illegal.

“We have seen people at all levels are motivated to get vaccines anyway, so even without this order, people will still want the vaccine,” he said.

The Ministry of Health on Wednesday said it confirmed 915 new COVID-19 cases and 33 deaths. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Cambodia has confirmed 63,615 cases and 986 deaths.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar, Vietnamese and Khmer Services. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane, Ye Kaung Myint Maung, Anna Vu and Samean Yun. Written in English by Eugene Whong.

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