Don’t help the junta rewrite history

Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab made Myanmar’s COVID-19 Delta outbreak in mid-2021 even worse. Military doctors should not be given an international platform to claim credit for containing the virus.

Regime propaganda comes in many forms. Its crudeness usually makes it easy to spot, but on rare occasions it can be more sophisticated.

In one recent example, pro-regime bias was seemingly too subtle for the editors at a prestigious academic journal, BMC Tropical Medicine and Health.

letter to the editor published in the journal on March 11 claimed that “timely containment measures implemented by the government were important to reduce the transmission as observed in the third wave of COVID-19 epidemic in Myanmar”.

The authors of the letter failed to mention that the “government” in question was an illegitimate military regime. There was no reference either to the February 1, 2021, military coup that toppled the democratically elected National League for Democracy government. 

Myanmar was already ill-equipped for the Delta wave, but in a range of ways the military power grab further weakened its ability to respond to the virus.

In the immediate aftermath of Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab, tens of thousands of medical staff went on strike, refusing to work under a military regime. When the wave hit, hospitals had few staff to care for patients, and many were turned away.

Similarly, many of the volunteers who had played such an integral role during the first and second waves were unwilling to cooperate with the regime. Donations to the public health response dried up. The coup also disrupted Myanmar’s vaccination drive prior to Delta’s arrival. The regime then cracked down on volunteer groups of striking doctors trying to help those sick with the virus, and requisitioned precious supplies of oxygen for state health facilities. 

None of this context is mentioned in the letter. But it’s not like it was a secret: all the editors of BMC Tropical Medicine and Health had to do was spend five minutes on Google.

The authors of the piece claim that the “stay at home” orders issued by the regime’s Ministry of Health were effective in helping to contain the virus.

They cite the ministry’s data for confirmed cases and deaths, and Google COVID-19 Community Mobility Reports as evidence.

But the ministry’s data is wholly unreliable. Many people who were infected tested themselves at home, without going to a government facility, and most were never tested at all. This was clear from a graph in the piece, which showed that testing was very low during the outbreak and only increased in September, after the outbreak had passed. 

Tragically, hundreds of thousands of people likely died in their own homes due to a lack of available medical care. Most of these cases or deaths were not counted.

This is not hyperbole. By comparing reported COVID-19 deaths with burial figures, Frontier has previously shown that there were more than 30,000 excess deaths in Yangon in July and August 2021 – almost 10 times the official number. 

While the regime was busy claiming “success” for is COVID response, the relatives of these 30,000 people were mourning the loss of loved ones – at least some of whom died because the military coup left Myanmar so poorly prepared. 

The disingenuousness of the authors is also clear from the fact they cite school closures as one of the “government adopted containment measures” that supposedly helped to stop the virus. Yes, the regime closed schools in response to Delta, but barely 10 percent of the student population was attending classes anyway, because of the mass boycott of the junta’s “slave education” system. 

Google’s mobility data does indeed show a decline shortly after stay-at-home orders were introduced, but this should not imply causation. To their credit, the authors concede that the decline in population movement outside the home may not only be due to “high enforcement of the restrictions by the government”, but also that “concern about the severity of diseases might reduce the mobility of people”.

Take it from those who were there: people stopped going out for a simple reason – because they were sick themselves, taking care of family members, or fearful of catching the virus at a time when the health system had collapsed. 

The lucky few who escaped infection did so by remaining at home of their own accord, not because the regime instructed them to. Case numbers went down only when herd immunity was reached, and there were few people left to infect.

The narrative that the regime’s containment measures worked also makes little sense when research has shown that one of the most important factors in a successful pandemic response is trust in the government. Trust is not something typically associated with a military regime that comes to power illegally by toppling a popular administration, deploys deadly violence against unarmed protesters and then uses every tactic imaginable (and some unimaginable) to brutalise a population into submission.

How this escaped the editors at BMC Tropical Medicine and Health is baffling. 

The article is a letter to the editor, which the publication describes as “a brief report that is within the journal’s scope and of particular interest to the community, but not suitable as a standard research article”. Not every published letter is peer reviewed – it is at the editors’ discretion, the journal says. But that is no excuse for publishing an article clearly designed to downplay the devastating outbreak and promote an illegitimate regime.

If nothing else, what should have alerted the journal’s editors that something was amiss was the affiliation of the authors. Thirteen of the 17 co-authors work at military facilities, including the Defence Services Medical Academy in Mingaladon, the 500-bed military hospital in Meiktila, and the Defence Services Medical School in Hmawbi. The four remaining co-authors are from the Ministry of Health, now firmly under regime control. 

While letters to the editor are not always peer reviewed, the authors have to declare any competing interests. The journal says a non-financial competing interest could be political, personal, religious, ideological, academic or intellectual. None of the authors declared any competing interest, despite the significance of their affiliation with the military.

The letter is a warped retelling of Myanmar’s Delta wave – one that bears little semblance to reality, but suits the agenda of the regime. It should never have been published in a prestigious academic journal, and disrespects the many people who lost their lives during Myanmar’s greatly under-reported deadly Delta wave.

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