After 20 months of war and years of communal tensions, the people of western Myanmar’s Rakhine state have faced a new threat from surging COVID-19 infections since mid-August that many fear could spread to thousands of refugees sheltering in overcrowded camps, lawmakers and health officials said Thursday.
As of Thursday, the country of 54 million people registered 602 confirmed cases, with six deaths. But Rakhine has seen a rapid spike of more than 200 people infected with the virus in the last two weeks, some of whom have visited displacement camps housing civilians who fled the armed conflict.
“The displaced civilians are living in very crowded conditions in the camps,” Rakhine state legislator Tun Thar Sein from Mrauk-U township said Wednesday. “They don’t have necessary items like masks or hand sanitizers. If there are outbreaks among the refugees, it will be disastrous.”
A 20-month conflict between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA) in parts of Rakhine and neighboring Chin state, has displaced an estimated 200,000 civilians, according to a local relief group.
Some of them have sought shelter in the 26 official internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, while others are living temporarily in Buddhist monastery compounds or with friends and relatives.
New COVID-19 cases have shown up in 10 townships where many IDPs now live, though there are no known cases yet in the congested camps, where people cannot practice social distancing.
In the past 48 hours alone, health ministry officials said they detected over 70 cases of COVID-19 infections, mostly in Rakhine’s capital Sittwe and in the historic town of Mrauk-U where thousands have sought shelter. Health officials determined that all but one of the infections were locally transmitted.
The figure includes three international humanitarian relief workers who recently were in camps in Mrauk-U, sparking concerns among local officials and IDPs that they are at heightened risk for contacting COVID-19.
“After health care workers from Relief International (RI) became infected with the virus, no one visited our camp,” said Than Kyaw Mya, who is in charge of Mrauk-U’s Pe Pinyin IDP camp, on Thursday.
Eleven IDPs who had contact with the RI workers have been isolated in a Buddhist monastery, though government health workers have not visited them yet, he told RFA’s Myanmar’s Service.
Some of the displaced people in the camp have come down with the flu, though camp administrators don’t know if it’s COVID-19, Than Kyaw Mya said.
“We are very concerned,” he said. “None of us have an awareness about the illness and its symptoms, so we don’t know what’s going on.”
The camp’s supply of protective face masks and hand sanitizer from the World Food Programme is almost gone, and the IDPs need more assistance with health care, he added.
Quick, accurate information
Lower house lawmaker Oo Tun Win of Kyauktaw township, which houses more than 10,000 IDPs, expressed growing alarm about the rising number of COVID-19 cases.
“The conditions in our township have been concerning since the pandemic started,” he said, adding that some confirmed cases had been reported in the township.
“We heard that the virus strain spreading now is 10 times more easily spread,” Oo Tun Win said, noting that there have been shortcomings in the government’s actions to implement virus-control measures in crowded refugee camps.
If officials there could receive quick and accurate information, they may be able to mitigate the situation, he said.
Government-imposed restrictions on mobile internet access in parts of the state meant to prevent the AA fighting Myanmar forces from transmitting information have made it difficult for civilians to access news about COVID-19. Pandemic information as well as preventive measures are widely circulated on social media in the country, especially on Facebook.
In recent days, the Ministry of Health and Sports said it would conduct random tests among high-risk groups in Rakhine state. Since Aug. 23, the central government has sent dozens of doctors and nurses to Sittwe General Hospital where most of Rakhine’s COVID-19 patients are being treated.
Meanwhile, state officials on Aug. 20 imposed a partial lockdown on Rakhine’s 3.2 million residents to contain the spread of the virus, allowing only business that sell food or other essentials to remain open, while people have been told to stay at home.
State health officials have been conducting health education programs in townships, and now are focused on finding people in camps who have been exposed to the COVID-positive RI staffers, said Dr. Soe Win Paing, assistant director of the state’s Public Health Department.
“We are working to contain the outbreak,” he said. “It’s not something we can do alone. We need cooperation from everyone.”
Health Department employees are now testing people who have come into contact with the infected RI staffers, Soe Win Paing told RFA.
“We’ve taken samples from those suspected of being infected and are testing them,” he said.
Win Myint, Rakhine state spokesman and minister of municipal affairs, told RFA that officials have ordered the quarantine of anyone in the camp who interacted with the infected aid workers.
Food, mask shortages
Khaing Kaung San, director of the Wun Lark Foundation, a civil society group based in Rakhine state’s capital Sittwe, said the state government should be doing more about health education.
“Now they are traveling around the towns and broadcasting messages through loudspeakers,” he said. “They should do that more frequently.”
He also said the government should provide more food and accommodations for locals in need, lift the internet service ban, and end the armed conflict
Kyaw Hein, a resident of Pauktaw town, which has 12 confirmed COVID-19 cases, said people there are increasingly concerned about the virus outbreak, as well as about face mask and food shortages.
“The roads are closed, so there are shortages of many commodities,” he told RFA.
Reported by Ni Min Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.