Internally displaced civilians who fled war in northern Myanmar are not heeding government orders and lockdowns to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, with hundreds continuing to work outside their camps so they can earn income to buy food amid shortages of humanitarian aid, camp and government officials said Tuesday.
“About 200 people are going out of the IDP camps every day for work,” said Bran Ming, leader of Jan Mai Kawng IDP camp on the outskirts of Myitkyina in Kachin state. “Some of them have to go out twice a day.”
They go to Myitkyina, the state capital, and to the nearby town of Waingmaw to work, while others head to friends’ houses for jobs or work in villages near the camp, he said.
“Because they must work daily to survive, we can’t lock down the camp, although we want to,” Bran Ming said.
Some people have donated face masks and hand soap, but the supplies are far from enough for the roughly 2,000 IDPs living at the Jan Mai Kawng camp, he added.
Armed conflict between ethnic armies and the Myanmar military in Kachin state have displaced nearly 100,000 civilians who are now living in 138 camps in government-controlled, ethnic army-controlled, and contested areas, according to a report by the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs issued Jan. 31.
The IDPS in Kachin state have been displaced since 2011, when a 17-year bilateral cease-fire broke down between Myanmar forces and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), one of Myanmar's main ethnic armed groups. Though the warring sides have not engaged in any recent clashes there, the IDPs still believe that it is not yet safe enough for them to return to their permanent homes.
Ample warnings about the spread of the coronavirus, officially known as COVID-19, are not holding people back from doing what they have to do to ensure they have enough food to eat, some IDPs said. They also appear unfazed about potentially transmitting the pathogen to other displaced people.
“People have to go outside and work for their survival,” said camp resident Ywe Ja. “But we can’t say if they are bringing in the virus from the outside, given their contact with others.”
“If we don’t leave the camp and just stay here, then that will be problematic for our survival,” she said. That’s why we want authorities to provide food for the IDPs, so we won’t need to go out.”
RFA’s Myanmar Service heard similar complaints from officials in other camps in the region.
“We are in trouble when it comes to food because we can’t leave the camp to go out and work,” said Daung Zay, leader of Tat Kone IDP camp on the outskirts of Myitkyina.
Nay Win, Kachin state’s minister of municipal affairs, said officials will provide basic food for the IDPs for a fixed period.
“We will provide rice for all IDP camps for two weeks,” he said. “We also will work on helping them by providing whatever else they need.”
People are ‘struggling’
As of Tuesday, Myanmar registered 22 confirmed cases of the coronavirus with one fatality.
The Myanmar government has ordered the closure of all land border checkpoints to foreign tourists, put in place a mandatory 14-day quarantine for foreigners and Myanmar nationals returning to the country, and prohibited public gatherings.
Some state and regional governments have mandated lockdowns to contain the spread of the virus, ordering residents to remain at home and only go out to buy food or receive medical care. Some have also temporarily suspended public transportation.
Myanmar’s national level COVID-19 response team said Monday that the government would provide rice, cooking oil, and lentils to those without an income during the 10-day Thingyan New Year holiday beginning April 10.
The announcement was welcomed by people who have temporarily lost their jobs or are struggling to make a living amid a drop off in business.
“Struggling people such as trishaw drivers, vendors, and construction workers will receive some rice, cooking oil, salt, beans, and onions starting on April 10,” said Win Naing, administrator of ward No. 20 in Yangon’s South Dagon township.
“It will support us a lot,” a local motorcyclist who gave his name as Chan told RFA. “Some have said that they would die starving. The government’s support plan is good for families with two or three people, but large families will continue to struggle.”
Lar Htaung Htan, minister of Chin ethnic affairs in northwestern Myanmar’s Sagaing region, said that supplemental help from outside organizations would help ordinary people get though the lockdown during the holiday period.
“It’s hard to know if the government’s plan will be sufficient, but with the help of NGOs, public donations, and other organizations, the situation will go smoothly.”
The Sagaing regional government has ordered a two-week lockdown starting April 7 and is providing food and funds to the region’s 34 townships to pay for their daily operations.
Reported by Elizabeth Jangma and Waiyan Moe Myint for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khet Mar and Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.