COVID-19’s music men

Five men admitted to a Yangon hospital with COVID-19 made online videos aimed at soothing people’s fear and anxiety about the pandemic, and became close friends in the process.


THE FIRST of the five men to be admitted to Yangon’s South Okkalapa Maternal and Child Hospital with COVID-19 was 32-year-old Ko Sithu Wu.

Sithu Wu had been under quarantine at the Ya Wai Nwe monastery in Mingalardon Township after coming into contact with case 59 in Myanmar’s tally of confirmed cases, which is now at 176. After testing positive for the virus on April 19, he became case 103 and was moved to the South Okkalapa hospital.

Expecting that quarantine might be tedious or lonely, Sithu Wu had taken a Sony mirrorless camera, capable of capturing video, and a laptop so that he could complete a project for the company he owns, Wu Productions, which makes commercial videos.

“I continued working at the quarantine centre, and after I tested positive I took my camera and laptop with me to the hospital,” he told Frontier on May 4.

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At the hospital’s isolation ward, Sithu Wu eventually found himself sharing a six-bed room with four other patients.

The last of the group to be admitted, on April 26, was Ko Chan Myae Aung, 32, the owner of the O Sushi restaurant on Parami Road in Yangon’s Hlaing Township, which was locked down by the authorities after he tested positive for COVID-19, becoming case 146. Determined to make the most of his hospital stay, he brought his guitar with him.

“When I saw them on my first day on April 26, they didn’t seem like hospital patients,” Chan Myae Aung told Frontier, remarking on how healthy they looked. “I was really happy to be with them and I forgot that I was a COVID-19 patient.”

Another of the five had also brought his guitar and the group began playing and singing together. Their jamming session led to an altruistic idea to target a bigger audience – to show friends, relatives and other COVID-19 patients that they were in good health, despite being infected with the virus, and help assuage some of the fear and anxiety created by the coronavirus pandemic.

The men got to work quickly and their first production was posted to Facebook on April 26, the same day that Chan Myae Aung arrived at the hospital. It drew overwhelmingly positive responses, with many wishing them a speedy recovery.

The video, called “Dude Covid, get out of here”, is a comedy montage in which the five dance to an Indian pop song and mime activities from their daily routine, such as exercising, self-checking their vital signs and cleaning the corridor outside their room (while strumming the mops as if they were guitars).

The men appear fit and healthy in the video, and not in the grips of a deadly disease. In this, they are far from unusual; the Ministry of Health and Sports has said that most of Myanmar’s confirmed COVID-19 patients have shown no symptoms of the disease.

Sithu Wu said they hadn’t discussed making the first video with hospital staff, but when they made their next video, they included cameos of nurses and doctors clad in personal protective equipment, or PPE. “We wanted to show health workers on the frontline against COVID-19,” Sithu Wu said.

The video, posted on April 28, involves the five men covering popular performer Wai Gyi’s song honouring medical workers, “About a doctor”. In between footage of hospital staff attending to patients, we see the five as they sit in a circle in their room, some on their beds and some on plastic chairs, singing in unison while one strums on a guitar.

“The doctors and nurses are treating us very well and they are exhausted. We wanted to thank them and that’s why decided to perform the cover song,” said Sithu Wu.

The five friends posted their latest video on May 4 and it features them performing a song composed by a COVID-19 patient at Waibargi infectious diseases hospital in Yangon’s North Okkalapa Township. Like the South Okkalapa hospital where the five men were staying and a converted civil service training institute at Phaunggyi in Hlegu Township, Waibargi hospital has been designated to treat confirmed cases in the city.

The song by the Waibargi patient, Ko Kanae, is about the discrimination and stigmatisation experienced by people infected by the coronavirus.

“I wish [people] could tell the difference between friends and enemies,” the song lyrics go, as the camera switches between footage of the five singing and of doctors and nurses at work in the hospital. “Please see everything with a positive attitude.”

Several people who have tested positive say they have been made to feel that they were to blame for becoming infected, and health officials fear that the widespread stigmatisation of COVID-19 patients, on social media and in communities, is deterring people suffering symptoms from seeking treatment.

Sithu Wu said those who were criticising COVID-19 patients were themselves endangering the country, and noted that few people in society seemed to be practising the social distancing that is required to slow the spread of the virus.

“If people are really afraid of the virus, why are they going outside again?” he said. “If more people become infected, [society] should not blame those people alone.”

O Sushi owner Chan Myae Aung said the public was justified in fearing COVID-19 but also needed to be better informed about the disease. He worries that when he recovers from the disease and re-opens his restaurant, he will have fewer customers because he has had COVID-19.

Asked about their daily routine, the five said they go to sleep at 9pm or 10pm and are woken by doctors using an intercom system at about 5:30am to self-test their blood oxygen levels, body temperature and blood pressure.

They are provided with breakfast at 7am, but they are left to themselves for the rest of the day.

“They [medical staff] showed us how to test ourselves,” said Sithu Wu. “They usually visit the room wearing their PPE suits at 6am to record our tests. They enter the room at least twice a day.”

On the night of May 4, Sithu Wu received good news: he tested negative for the second time and was moved to a ground floor room for recovering patients. On May 7 he was transferred to the Phaunggyi facility for a further seven days’ quarantine, after which he will be asked to quarantine for an additional week at home, and be tested again.

Before his transfer, Sithu Wu promised his “brothers” that they would meet again when they have all tested negative and the situation returns to normal. In the meantime, Sithu Wu hopes that those being treated for COVID-19 will pass the time in the same way he and his new friends had, by pouring their energies into creative projects to lighten the mood of themselves and the public.

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