Myanmar's battle against COVID-19 finds a 13-year-old on the front line
August 11, 2021
Teenager Tun Lin Naing is fearlessly volunteering to collect bodies of virus victims during a deadly outbreak.
In Myanmar, where people have been left on their own to face a deadly third wave of COVID-19 amid political strife and violence in the wake of February’s military coup, Tun Lin Naing is not letting his young age, or fear of infection, stop him from pitching in to help with the health crisis.
Just 13, Tun Lin Naing has been volunteering daily with a small charity group that provides free funeral services to the needy in Yangon, the commercial hub and largest city. The free mortuary campaign was launched in July, just as cases began to spike in the country of 54 million.
Although he was first tasked by the Metta Thingaha Free Funeral Aid Association to help with administration and cleaning safety equipment, Tun Lin Naing within weeks volunteered to do the grim and dangerous work of gathering bodies of COVID-19 victims and preparing them for cremation.
When he first began going out to gather bodies in Yangon’s Dagon Myothit township, the slight figure in outsized protective gear was unable to see through the plastic face-covering of his suit, which fogged up with sweat and steam of as he worked in the hot tropical sun.
One time, he said, he slipped as he got down from one of the hearses and accidentally stepped into one of the coffins his group was transporting.
“I could barely see through the face cover of my PPE suit, as it was blurred,” he said. “I accidentally stepped into the coffin and onto the body. I was terrified.”
But the young man soon mastered the work and is now a key part of the team of about 20 Metta Thingaha volunteers led by founder Min Din that since early July has been providing daily free transportation for bodies to Yangon area cemeteries using its five hearses.
“When I carried a dead body for the first time, I was afraid, but I am no longer scared because I have carried so many of them,” he said.
‘He doesn’t fear anything’
Tun Lin Naing, an aspiring mechanic, told RFA’s Myanmar Service that though he no longer needs to be instructed on how to help, he is still affected by the work and how the pandemic has devastated his community.
“I feel sorry for these people and when I see the surviving family members crying,” he said. “These days, it’s something I see quite often.”
Tun Lin Naing’s family lives in a humble house in Ward 11 of Yangon’s East Dagon township, near Metta Thingaha’s office. Tun Lin Naing’s parents sent him to the association in December 2020 after Min Din agreed to help continue his education, and he began attending 7th grade last month.
The teenager was initially assigned to help with administrative duties, but when the latest outbreak led to school closures and a need for additional volunteers, he began to assist the others with duties that entailed collected and transporting corpses of COVID-19 victims.
Charity leader Min Din praised Tun Lin Naing as a quick learner and a fearless worker.
“We were short of volunteers as the situation became worse in the city, but he was very willing to help,” he said.
“He doesn’t fear anything and he’s very careful about wearing the PPE correctly—even better than some of the adults,” said Min Din.
“Most of our volunteers need to take a break for two or three days after carrying bodies for five consecutive days. But this kid never took a break. Even when the death toll is at its highest, he has worked tirelessly,” he added.
Myanmar has recorded 333,000 cases of COVID-19 and more than 12,000 deaths since March 2020. Experts say the military junta that overthrew the elected government on Feb. 1 has done little to stem the pandemic, and that the actual toll is likely much higher.
‘A humanitarian spirit’
Tun Lin Naing, the oldest of four siblings, hasn’t returned to his home much since he began working with Metta Thingaha in July, for fear of infecting his family.
His parents told RFA that they worry about his safety but are happy to know that he is doing something he is passionate about and will be able to continue with his education, despite their poverty.
“We try to visit him regularly—we must wear face masks and wash our hands carefully when we return from seeing him. But we are worried. We are concerned he will get infected while volunteering,” said his mother, Seint Lae Mon.
“As far as we can see, he is still in good health. The volunteers working with him take their safety very seriously.”
Tun Lin Naing’s father Kyaw Gyi told RFA he is proud of his son’s volunteer work.
“He has a humanitarian spirit, and he will be blessed for helping others,” he said.
Tun Lin Naing said he is interested in becoming a mechanic when he gets older. As his guardian, Min Din said he will ensure the young man obtains a formal education and vocational training so that he can follow his dreams.
Reported by RFA’s Myanmar Service. Translated by Ye Kaung Myint Maung. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.
Photos: RFA, Myanmar Pressphoto Agency (MPA)
Editing: Paul Eckert, H. Léo Kim, Paul Nelson, Mat Pennington
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