Concern at Low COVID-19 Awareness in Myanmar’s Rakhine Under Internet Blackout

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myanmar-vendor-face-mask-yangon-mar24-2020.jpg A vendor wears a face mask as a preventive measure against the coronavirus at a market in Myanmar's commercial capital Yangon, March 24, 2020.

Residents of Myanmar’s war-torn Rakhine state are conducting business as usual and holding public gatherings, deprived by an internet blackout of information about how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, residents and local lawmakers said Tuesday.

The President’s Office in mid-March banned the holding of public gatherings, including the annual Thingyan Buddhist New Year celebrations in April until the last day of that month, saying that the suspension period would be extended as needed.

But the ban — and threats of prison terms for those who fail to report suspected cases of the coronavirus, also known as COVID-19 — appear to have fallen on deaf ears in Rakhine state even as health officials reported the country’s first coronavirus death — a 69-year-old man who returned to Myanmar in mid-March after receiving cancer treatment in Australia.

As of Tuesday, Myanmar reported 15 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

“There are still festivals being held in Rakhine state,” resident Khin Maung Oo told RFA’s Myanmar Service. “If the virus spreads here, there will be piles of bodies all over Rakhine.”

After Myanmar announced the first two confirmed cases of the coronavirus on March 23, the government issued an order requiring all Myanmar nationals and foreigners traveling to the country to spend 14 days in a quarantine facility upon arrival. The directive also requires foreigners to present medical evidence of the absence of COVID-19 infections.

The Ministry of Health and Sports warned of the possibility of a major outbreak after a migrant returnee in Yangon tested positive on Monday. And in a televised address on Tuesday evening, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi said people who have potentially been infected with COVID-19 will be subject to compulsory 14-day quarantine, the online journal The Irrawaddy reported.

Yet, thousands of migrant workers, who recently returned to Myanmar after they lost their jobs when factories closed in China and Thailand due to the spread of the virus, have not heeded the quarantine order.

Labor activists have warned that the workers might carry the pathogen home and infect their families and others with whom they come into contact.

“In nearly all townships in Rakhine state, returning migrant workers don’t understand the importance of remaining in quarantine for two weeks,” said Pe Than, a lower house lawmaker from the state’s Arakan National Party.

Internet blackout

The situation has been exacerbated by a government-ordered internet service blackout in eight townships in northern Rakhine state and one in adjacent Chin state, as a security measure amid intense clashes between Myanmar forces and the rebel Arakan Army (AA), fighting for autonomy for the western state.

“Without internet service, they don’t understand that the disease is very dangerous, and they insist they are well,” Pe Than said of the returning migrant workers. “The government also is doing nothing to address this problem.”

The internet ban is also preventing tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the fighting in Rakhine from accessing reports about COVID-19 and how to prevent its spread.

“In the IDP [internally displaced persons] camps, there are a lot of migrant workers who have returned from Thailand,” said Myint Naing, a lawmaker from Kyauktaw township, one of the areas where the internet suspension is in effect. “Health education is in dire need in Rakhine.”

The internet ban also means that displaced civilians cannot communicate with humanitarian groups about shortages of food and other basic necessities they need in the camps.

“There are a lot of war refugees in Rakhine, and water shortages are another problem,” said Khin Saw Wai, an ANP lawmaker from Rathedaung township, another area subject to the internet suspension.

About 140,000 displaced villagers have sought shelter in more than 100 camps in Rakhine as well as in Buddhist monasteries and private homes after fleeing clashes during the past 15 months, according to the Rakhine Ethnics Congress, a local relief group.

The REC issued a plea on March 18 for officials to reinstate internet access to provide information on COVID-19 to residents of the nine townships, with the group’s secretary, Zaw Zaw Tun, warning that an unchecked epidemic among refugees “could affect the entire region and cause mass deaths.”

Reported by Wai Mar Tun for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.


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