Interview: ‘Up to 400,000 Lives Could be Lost’ Without Prompt Action by Myanmar Junta

"The recent military coup is not helping the situation and instead it’s making it worse," says Zaw Wai Soe.
Interview: ‘Up to 400,000 Lives Could be Lost’ Without Prompt Action by Myanmar Junta People waiting to fill up empty oxygen canisters outside a factory in Yangon, Myanmar's biggest city, July 14, 2021.

Dr. Zaw Wai Soe, leader of the COVID-19 taskforce in Myanmar before the Feb. 1 military coup d’état overthrew the country’s democratically elected government, serves as health minister of the National Unity Government (NUG), the three-month-old shadow cabinet set up to oppose the military junta. The former rector of the Yangon Institute of Medicine spoke the Khin Khin Ei of RFA’s Myanmar Service about the NUG’s approach to the COVID-19 crisis and mistakes it says the military regime is committing that threaten the country’s 54 million people..

RFA: Can you tell us about the current situation of the COVID-19 pandemic in the country?

Zaw Wai Soe: The kind of strain we are seeing now in our country is a very fast spreading variety. It is highly infectious. And the recent military coup is not helping the situation and instead it’s making it worse. I could say that the death toll is unnecessarily high. Every possible action should be taken to slow down infections and stop the high death toll.

RFA: What do you think is the worst scenario?

Zaw Wai Soe: Our epidemiologists have been checking and analyzing the situation, the infections and the deaths. It is not possible that more than 10 million of the population will perish as some reports in the media today are saying. We have been checking the infection rates, the positive cases and what the latest strain could do and I’d say it is possible that more than 300,000 or up to 400,000 lives could be lost if necessary, effective actions are not taken in timely way to slow down the infections.  I think there are over 1,000 deaths a day now. Saying there are about 6,000 to 7,000 new positive cases per day is also an understatement. They are underreporting. If all the data are systematically collected, I think there could be about 20,000 positive cases (daily).

RFA: Why do you think we are in this situation now?

Zaw Wai Soe: Since February when they staged the coup, we had foreseen that the third wave would be here soon because of the new infections in our neighbors, India and Thailand. I told my colleagues and subordinates to have the records well-kept and be prepared. All necessary measures should have been taken since then, because a third wave would surely come.  We had done well to fight the first and second waves. We monitored the situation, as everyone knows, and tried to stop the infections that were occurring in Rakhine State spreading. Even then, it came to Yangon via airline passengers. What is important is management to have precautions taken and to be well prepared for an outbreak. I don’t think the regime has that kind of effective management and preparations now. They didn’t seem to have any preparations in hand.

RFA: What suggestions would you give to the people now facing the pandemic?

Zaw Wai Soe: We, the NUG, have issued statements and have been working with our people in various townships with regard to the infections. The majority of the people in our country know what they should and shouldn’t do, but a lot of people are not following the regulations. And we would like to urge all people to closely observe the rules. We are launching a new campaign today named ‘Freedom to breathe.’ We already have urged people to wear masks--two-layered masks if possible. It is at present not easy to be admitted to a hospital, and a lot of patients are now being treated at home. Getting oxygen is also becoming difficult so we are letting people know through our social media and online pages of sources where they can get it. The NUG has opened a phone line called 'Telemedicine' through which people can call for information. There are nearly 100 doctors taking calls simultaneously from five or six lines. There are over 3,000 consultations a day like this over the telephone. If the people, every one of them, strictly follow the rules, we could break the infection. The NUG is also working with international organizations at the moment and I urge people to monitor our activities and cooperate with us.

RFA: Detained National League for Democracy leaders such as Nyan Win and Phyo Min Thein have already contracted the virus. People are worried for the safety of these leaders and Aung San Suu Kyi. How much safety do you think they have?

Zaw Wai Soe: We are very worried for them too. It is not easy to stop infections in a prison environment. It is not possible to adhere to strict regulations there. They must take full responsibility for the safety of our leaders. The NUG has now formed a commission regarding this pandemic, including the minister for justice and the minister for human rights as members, and has notified International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. We cannot let anything happen to our national leaders. It would be unforgivable if anything happens.

Translated by Khin Maung Nyane.


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