Illustration by Jared Downing | Frontier

COVID-19: We’re all in it together

The COVID-19 pandemic has left even some of the best-resourced health systems in the world struggling to cope.

Many countries have effectively cut themselves off from the world, sealing borders and restricting flights. Schools have been shuttered, sports matches cancelled, even entire cities put in lockdown. In some cases, doctors are having to make difficult decisions about who receives treatment and who misses out. It’s a situation unimaginable just a few months ago.

So far Myanmar seems to have been spared the worst, save for the economic impact, driven by collapses in global demand and supply chains, which has thrown the country’s threadbare social safety net into stark relief (see our article “Melons rot, factories shutter: Myanmar’s COVID-19 fallout”). In a society where so many people live close to the poverty line, the mass lay-offs that are already taking place could spark cycles of debt that, without assistance, will condemn families to years of poverty and drive desperate individuals into the hands of human traffickers.

At the time of writing the Ministry of Health and Sports had not confirmed a single case, out of 130 tested. On the streets and in the teashops, life is continuing much as normal. The lack of panic is admirable given events around the globe.

But given that the coronavirus has already spread to 143 countries or territories, and that Myanmar shares a long border with China, it seems unlikely that it’s not already here.

If Myanmar really is coronavirus-free, then it’s probably thanks to the strict measures that China put in place to control the outbreak and the relative paucity of international flights to Yangon and Mandalay.

It is unlikely to be because of the warmer climate – other Southeast Asian countries have recorded tens, even hundreds of cases, and that means they probably have thousands of infections ­– or because, as a government official recently claimed, credit card use is low and social relations less tactile than in, say, continental Europe.

It’s also far too soon to breathe a sigh of relief, or talk about a post-COVID-19 environment. Globally, the situation is going to get worse before it gets better, and that will put Myanmar at continued risk. Even in China, where infection rates are now almost zero, it’s unclear what will happen when it eventually lifts its internal restrictions.

The Myanmar government needs to take advantage of the head start it has been given.

In recent days it has stepped up its response, cancelling Thingyan celebrations and other mass gatherings, and imposing restrictions on anybody arriving from eight affected countries.

These measures might seem heavy handed ­– and they have not always been communicated adequately – but they are definitely not an overreaction. In fact, they are absolutely necessary ­and if anything should have been done earlier. The government should take even stronger, evidence-based preventative measures while it still can.

Myanmar is not well-placed to cope with an outbreak of COVID-19. It has relatively few testing kits and limited laboratory capacity. Intensive care beds and ventilators are in short supply. It can hardly count on help from elsewhere, because most other countries are facing their own shortages. Multi-generational households are common in Myanmar, which could make it harder to protect the elderly, who are more vulnerable.

This isn’t to denigrate the skills and hard work of Myanmar’s public health workers – it’s just the reality.

It doesn’t mean that we need to panic, but we should act.

If you haven’t already done so, now is the time to adopt sensible social distancing measures. Work from home if you can. Conduct your meetings online. Cancel sporting events and other community gatherings. Avoid crowded places. If you have any of the symptoms of the coronavirus – a fever, a cough or a runny nose ­­– then don’t go out, unless it’s for medical treatment.

This might seem like an overreaction given that Myanmar has no confirmed cases of COVID-19. But what Myanmar can learn from other countries that are in the grip of coronavirus outbreaks is that taking action now – even if it later turns out to have been unnecessary – can make all the difference. We all have a responsibility to play our part in stopping the coronavirus.

This editorial will appear in the March 19 edition of Frontier.

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