Myanmar Military Has Weaponized COVID-19 Against Its Own People

Myanmar’s COVID-19 deaths are on the rise, and residents and human rights activists are claiming that the government, which seized power in February, is using the pandemic to consolidate power and crush the opposition.Myanmar became the country with the highest per capita death rate in Southeast Asia during the past week, surpassing Indonesia and Malaysia. The country’s crippled health care system has rapidly become overrun with new patients suffering from COVID-19.There is a shortage of medical oxygen, and the government has banned its private sale in many places to prevent hoarding. However, this has led to widespread allegations that the stocks are going to government supporters and military-run hospitals.The government has also targeted medical workers for spearheading a civil disobedience movement that urges professionals and civil servants not to cooperate with the State Administrative Council.Yanghee Lee, the U.N.’s former Myanmar human rights expert and a founding member of the Special Advisory Council for Myanmar, says they have halted distributing protective equipment and masks and will not allow certain civilians to be treated in hospitals.”They have banned the sale of oxygen to civilians or people who aren’t supported by the SAC, so they are using something that can save people against people,” she said. COVID is being weaponized by the military.”Myanmar’s Deputy Information Minister Zaw Min Tun did not respond to questions about the allegations, but under internal and external pressure to end the pandemic, the leadership has been on a public relations offensive.The SAC’s military commander, Senior Gen. Min Aung Hlaing, is reported to have said that efforts were also being made to seek support from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations and unspecified “friendly countries.”According to him, efforts must be made to improve the health of the State and its people.Its 7-day rolling average of deaths per million rose to 6.29 Thursday – more than double the rate of 3.04 in India at the peak of its crisis in May. The figures in Myanmar are believed to be dramatically undercounted due to lack of reporting and testing. A physician from the Mawlamyine General Hospital in Myanmar’s fourth-largest city told The Associated Press there was a big difference between the military council’s death toll and reality. “There are a lot of people in the community who have died of the disease.”On social media, videos show apparent virus victims laying dead in their homes for lack of treatment and long lines of people waiting for what oxygen is still available. The government denies reports cemeteries have been overwhelmed but announced Tuesday they were building new facilities to cremate up to 3,000 bodies per day.“By letting COVID-19 run out of control, the military junta is failing the Burmese people as well as the wider region and world, which can be threatened by new variants fueled by unchecked spread of the disease in places like Myanmar,” said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch. “The problem is the junta cares more about holding on to power than stopping the pandemic.”Myanmar was already one of the poorest countries in the region when the military seized power, causing a violent political struggle.Aung San Suu Kyi’s government narrowly survived a coronavirus outbreak last year by restricting travel and closing off Yangon. Vaccinations were secured from India and China, but their government was overthrown less than a week after the first shots were given.As civil disobedience grew after Suu Kyi’s removal, public hospitals were basically closed as doctors and other employees refused to work under the new administration, instead operating makeshift clinics for which they were arrested if caught.Mawlamyine doctors interviewed by AP said returning to public hospitals was too dangerous.”I could be arrested at any time if I returned to the hospital,” said the doctor, who was part of the disobedience movement and has been treating patients with supplies he has scrounged.The U.N. Human Rights Council’s independent expert on human rights in Myanmar, Tom Andrews, said government forces have engaged in 260 attacks on medical facilities and personnel, killing 18. At least 67 health care professionals have been detained, and another 600 are still missing.Although military hospitals continued operating after Suu Kyi’s ouster, they were shunned by many people, and vaccinations slowed until they vanished completely just this week. Although no solid figures are available, it is believed about 3% of the population received two shots.The rapid rise in COVID -19 illnesses is “extremely concerning, particularly in light of the lack of health services and oxygen supplies,” said Joy Singhal, head of the Red Cross delegation in Myanmar.The disease needs greater testing, contact tracing and COVID-19 vaccinations, he told AP. “This latest surge is a bitter blow to millions of people in Myanmar, who are already contending with worsening economic and social circumstances.”Andrews urged the U.N. Security Council and member states to push for a COVID cease-fire earlier this week.He emphasized that the United Nations cannot remain passive while the junta attacks medical personnel as COVID-19 spreads unchecked. “They must act to stop this violence so that doctors and nurses can provide lifesaving care, and international organizations can help provide vaccinations and medical care.”The first of 2 million doses of vaccine will be sent to Yangon this month. Another 10,000 doses will go to the Kachin Independence Army, which has waged an insurgency for decades along a northern border region where the virus has spread.Zhao Lijian, the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesman, declined to comment directly earlier this week on the report of the delivery to the KIA, stating instead that “the epidemic is a common enemy to all mankind.”According to Global New Light, Myanmar received another 1 million doses from China.COVID-19 outbreaks have been reported as widespread in Myanmar’s prisons. State-run MRTV television showed 610 inmates from Yangon’s Insein Prison receiving vaccines. The report was met with skepticism and derision on social media.If the government is positioning itself as the panacea to the pandemic by using vaccines and other aid, Lee says it’s too late.”The people know now, and it’s been too long,” she said. “COVID wasn’t manmade, but it got out of hand after complicity and deliberate blocking of services — there’s no going back.”

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