Oxygen Shortage Killing COVID-19 Patients in Myanmar as Junta Restricts Sales

Treatment centers will only accept patients with severe symptoms, leaving many to die at home.
Oxygen Shortage Killing COVID-19 Patients in Myanmar as Junta Restricts Sales People stand with empty oxygen canisters as they wait to fill them up outside a factory in Yangon, July 11, 2021.

COVID-19 patients in Myanmar are dying due to a shortage of oxygen amid a third wave of infections in the country, healthcare workers said Monday, even as the military regime recently restricted sales of the gas, citing scams and price gouging.

As the number of infections climbs in the country, Myanmar’s junta-controlled COVID-19 treatment centers are at capacity and only accepting infected patients with severe symptoms, said a doctor in Mandalay, who spoke to RFA’s Myanmar Service on condition of anonymity citing fear of reprisal.

The policy has led to a run on oxygen supplies and related equipment as families scramble to provide treatment for their loved ones at home.

“We recommend that patients with oxygen saturation of less than 94 percent be placed on a ventilator or go to the hospital … but many hospitals are now at full capacity and have no empty beds, so they send the patients back home and tell them only to return if they are at less than 80 percent,” the doctor said.

“No other countries make such limitations for hospitalization. That’s why many patients have had to return home. They are in big trouble. Their families are trying to get oxygenation equipment wherever they can to give these patients treatment at home. That’s what is causing the equipment and supply shortage.”

Social media in Myanmar has been flooded with posts showing patients who have died due to low oxygen saturation levels or family members pleading for help for their loved ones in need of oxygen treatment.

The concerning reports of an oxygen shortage came as Myanmar struggles with its third wave of COVID-19 infections since the start of the coronavirus pandemic early last year and in the wake of the military’s Feb. 1 coup d’état, which has left the country mired in political turmoil. Many of the nation’s medical workers have joined the swelling ranks of an anti-junta Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), leaving hospitals critically understaffed and hampering efforts to contain the spread of the virus.

On Monday, the Ministry of Health said that of 10,200 people tested over a 24-hour period from July 10-11 in the country’s largest city Yangon and the capital Naypyidaw, some 3,400 were confirmed infected. More than 1,000 of the test subjects were from Yangon and the remainder from Naypyidaw.

At the end of last week, the ministry announced a 40 percent leap in infections and an 80 percent increase in deaths from COVID-19 in the capital within a seven-day period.

According to the Ministry of Health, at least 197,227 people have been infected with COVID-19 in Myanmar since the start of the pandemic, while 3,927 people have died.

Restricting oxygen sales

But despite the growing infection rate and lack of hospital beds, the junta recently announced restrictions on the sale of oxygen by private producers, saying officials had received complaints about price gouging and consumer hoarding.

Deputy Minister of Information Maj. Gen. Zaw Min Tun confirmed the restrictions during a press briefing in Naypyidaw on Monday.

“The reason we put these restrictions in place is, firstly, because we discovered scams on the internet. Some people are committing fraud, pretending to provide services refilling oxygen supplies, and we received complaint letters,” he said.

“Secondly, there are many cases of unnecessary use of oxygen supplies. For those who actually need oxygen, they can refill it after obtaining recommendation letters from local healthcare professionals.”

Khin Maung Win, chairman of the Mandalay-based Min Khaung Humanitarian Assistance Group, said the press briefing failed to address how the junta will stop infected people from dying at home due to lack of oxygen.

“At least 38 people [died at home from lack of oxygen] yesterday and several more died today—we have been helping to take the bodies to funerals,” he said.

“The COVID-19 treatment centers are now at full capacity, and they are sending patients back home. That’s why patients must rely on home treatment and private oxygen supplies, but many don’t have oxygen tanks and those who do can’t refill them because producers can’t meet the demand.”

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

“That’s because the government could provide standard healthcare and treatment at that time,” said the nurse, who declined to be named.

“There was a system in place to control outbreaks of the virus. That’s why the infection rate was not so high. But during this third wave, both the infection and death rate have been soaring.”

Moe Mann, the leader of Yangon-based humanitarian group Myanma Sate Yin, said his group had set up a mobile team to distribute oxygenation equipment and supplies for patients in dire need, but is receiving “thousands of calls every day.”

He called on the authorities to either take control of the situation or to relax the restrictions they put in place.

“It would be better if we could get unlimited supplies from factories,” he said.

Aung San Suu Kyi (C), wearing a face mask and gloves to halt the spread of the coronavirus, waits with her dog to wave to supporters of her National League for Democracy party as they drive past in Naypyidaw, Sept. 19, 2020. AFP
Aung San Suu Kyi (C), wearing a face mask and gloves to halt the spread of the coronavirus, waits with her dog to wave to supporters of her National League for Democracy party as they drive past in Naypyidaw, Sept. 19, 2020. AFP
Deposed leaders on outbreak

Also on Monday, Min Min Soe, the defense lawyer for both Aung San Suu Kyi and former President Win Myint, said she had met with the deposed leaders in detention and that they were both in good health and had expressed concern over the worsening COVID-19 situation.

“She is worried for the people because of the COVID-19 outbreak. She also wants to know how the authorities are working to contain the virus,” the lawyer said.

“She said she is sending her prayers and compassion for all the people in the country. She appealed to the people to help each other, look out for one another and be patient for each other … as well as to stay united.”

Aung San Suu Kyi, ousted and arrested with other top political leaders during the coup by the Myanmar military on Feb. 1 faces seven charges, including sedition, which her lawyers say are trumped-up offenses to discredit her. Win Myint also has been charged with sedition.

The leaders’ comments came as Aung San Suu Kyi’s trial proceedings continued Monday, with a court in Naypyidaw hearing testimonies from the prosecution’s witnesses related to three of the charges against her.

Min Min Soe said three witnesses from the Naypyidaw Military Command Division testified that the search they conducted on the Nobel Peace Laureate’s home on Feb. 1 related to the Telecommunication Law violation took place without warrants.

“During the cross examination, they said they didn’t have warrants when they executed the search at [her home],” she said.

“They also testified that they didn’t have the proper documents for a search when they confiscated the communication device that they file the charges for.”

In addition to sedition, the junta has charged Aung San Suu Kyi with allegedly violating the colonial-era Official Secrets Act and for corruption, violation of the Telecommunications Law, possession of unlicensed walkie-talkie radios, and two violations of protocols set up to contain the spread of coronavirus. The 76-year-old faces more than 40 years in prison.

The military says its coup was justified because voter fraud led to a landslide victory for the NLD in the country’s November 2020 election. The junta has yet to provide evidence of its claims and has violently suppressed nationwide demonstrations calling for a return to civilian rule, killing more than 900 people over the past five months.

Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Khin Maung Nyane and by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.


Add your comment by filling out the form below in plain text. Comments are approved by a moderator and can be edited in accordance with RFAs Terms of Use. Comments will not appear in real time. RFA is not responsible for the content of the postings. Please, be respectful of others' point of view and stick to the facts.