Two pastors and two of their followers were charged in Myanmar on Tuesday for holding Christian services in defiance of bans on large gatherings to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — events that sickened the four men and a famous rock musician with the coronavirus, a local official said.
Pastor Kwe Wah and follower Ray Gandi, and Pastor David Lah and follower Wai Tun have been charged by police in their home townships, said Moe Moe Suu Kyi, Yangon region’s minister of immigration and human resources.
“The police have charged them under the Natural Disaster Management Law,” she said. “They all have been charged by police in their [respective] townships.”
The four — whom, if found guilty, could face fines, a maximum of one year in prison, or both — have been confirmed positive for the coronavirus and have been admitted to Waibargi Hospital, a Yangon medical institution that specializes in treating infectious diseases.
The Ministry of Health and Sports announced that five of people who tested positive for the virus on April 12 had attended a religious ceremony with some foreigners.
The charges did not give specific dates for the ceremonies, but local media reports said the meetings went on within April – weeks after a ban on such mass gatherings in Yangon, the former capital once known as Rangoon.
The Yangon regional government issued the ban on March 13 to be in effect until the end of April to reduce the spread of COVID-19. It issued another directive for residents to stay home during the Thingyan Buddhist New Year holiday from April 10 to 17, and to go out only to buy food and medicine or to deal with emergencies.
Singer Myo Gyi, a 44-year-old rock icon in Myanmar who has reportedly been in contact with some of the virus-infected churchgoers also has tested positive along with his wife, said Tun Myint, a lower house lawmaker from Bahan township.
“The male singer and his wife who live in the Pearl Condominiums in Bahan township are among those on the updated list of new coronavirus patients released this morning,” he said.
“There are 82 apartments in Building B of the condominiums where they live. We have now locked down all 82 apartments,” he said.
As of Tuesday, Myanmar recorded 63 confirmed COVID-19 cases and four deaths, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. Nearly 50 of the people confirmed to have the virus are from Yangon region.
President’s Office spokesman Zaw Htay said Vice President Henry Van Thio, his wife, and about 30 others will be tested for COVID-19 after he met with Pastor David Lah at the Myanmar National Youth Conference in Naypyidaw on Feb. 9.
Photos of Van Thio and the pastor taken that day have gone viral on social media, though the vice president said he has not met with the pastor again.
Van Thio’s wife wrote on social media on Tuesday that both she and her husband are in good health.
The poor must work
Despite regional lockdown directives, people continue to gather in markets and on streets in some townships in Yangon, said Hla Htay, a Yangon region parliamentarian from Mingalar Taung Nyunt township.
“There mainly have been crowds on Myanma Gonyi Road and on Naung Yoe Street in the past few days,” he said, adding that authorities have cracked down on groups dispersed along Myanma Gonyi Road.
“But, there are still crowds and packs of people on Naung Yoe Street,” he said. “We are inspecting the area and warning them to stay at home.”
Dr. Okka Kyi Win, a resident of Yangon, said that authorities are passing through neighborhoods to announce coronavirus safety guidelines over loudspeakers.
“They also have set up billboards and posters about the virus at junctions along the roads,” he told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
The working poor in Myanmar’s commercial hub — many of whom remain on the job — say they cannot afford to comply with the lockdown and stop working.
“I am afraid of starving instead of catching an infectious disease,” said coconut vendor Kyaw Min, who must feed a family of four and pay the rent.
Myanmar’s national level COVID-19 response team said April 6 that the government would provide rice, cooking oil, and lentils to those without an income during the Thingyan holiday period. The announcement was welcomed by people who have temporarily lost their jobs or who are struggling to make a living amid a drop-off in business.
But Kyaw Min said he did not receive a food package from the government because they were passed out only to trishaw drivers who had to stop working.
Cho Cho Mar, who sells fruit in front of the Yangon Convention Centre, echoed the sentiment, saying, “If I was afraid of the virus, my family would be starving.”
“I cannot stay home because I have a family to feed and rent to pay,” she added.
Soe Min, a roasted chicken vendor, said he must continue to work despite the lockdown.
“I am doing this to make a living for my family,” he said. “I am frightened of the virus, but also of starving. If I am not allowed to sell, I must find other work.”
Curfew imposed in Sagaing
Officials in northwest Myanmar’s Sagaing region, meanwhile, ordered a curfew from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. beginning Monday as a measure to curb the spread of COVID-19, though residents are permitted to leave their homes to buy food and seek medical help.
Those who do venture out have been advised to wear face masks and to take other precautions announced by the Ministry of Health and Sports.
“Residents need to follow the instructions of health authorities at all times, day and night, [because] if they do, then we can control the situation,” said Colonel Than Tun Aung, Sagaing’s minister of security and border affairs.
But some residents questioned whether citizens would obey the new measure during Thingyan, which people celebrate by throwing water on each other.
“The curfew alone will not be enough,” said Nu Nu, who lives in Sagaing’s capital Monywa. “If authorities inspect all areas, than there can be no water festivals.”
The curfew comes a week after Sagaing region officials reversed an earlier decision to impose a controversial two-week lockdown from April 7 to April 21 to prevent the spread of COVID-19, refusing to allow residents to leave their homes for essential services.
So far, the region has not reported any confirmed coronavirus cases.
Myanmar authorities have pledged to take a zero-tolerance approach to those who fail to adhere to social-distancing rules and arrest those who do not report suspected cases of infections or who violate obligatory 14-day quarantines.
Reported by Nay Myo Htun, Thant Zin Oo, and Khaymani Win for RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung, Khin Khin Ei, and Maung Maung Nyo. Written in English by Roseanne Gerin.