As COVID-19 cases mount in Yangon, the government has ordered townships to open quarantine centres, but without any financial support local officials have been forced to solicit donations from cash-strapped businesses.
By HTIN LYNN AUNG | FRONTIER
U Kyaw Thet Htoo peers from above his disposable face mask at the crowd gathered inside the hall of a high school in Yangon Region’s inner eastern Dawbon Township.
“I’d like to ask all of you to donate with goodwill as much as you can afford,” Kyaw Thet Htoo, the township administrator, says at the end of his presentation to about 70 small business owners from Dawbon.
Kyaw Thet Htoo called the meeting on September 8 to seek donations for a planned facility-based quarantine centre in the township to house people who have been in close contact with confirmed COVID-19 cases.
The COVID-19 second wave that began in mid-August has resulted in a sharp rise in the number of people in facility quarantine across the country.
To ease crowding in existing quarantine facilities, the government has relaxed its policy on quarantine so that those who have travelled from COVID-19 hotspots or had contact with a confirmed patient will now only spend two weeks in a state facility or approved hotel, rather than three.
But with cases in Yangon Region continuing to rise – the city recorded 2,158 between August 24 and September 16 – there are fears that existing facilities, both for quarantine and treatment, could soon be under strain.
Earlier this month, state and regional governments issued orders for township General Administration Department officers to prepare quarantine centres to help control the spread of the coronavirus. However, the order made no mention of funding for the centres, which township GAD officers are under pressure to open as soon as possible.
In the absence of government funding, the officers’ solution in some townships has been to call meetings of business owners and ask them to donate towards the cost of establishing the centres.
Gathered inside the school in Dawbon are representatives from large grocery stores, restaurants, hotels and guesthouses, liquor stores and convenience stores. Kyaw Thet Htoo is able to coax donations of around K10 million for the centre, which opened in the high school on September 17 – when Dawbon had 29 confirmed cases – and is housing 18 people. Among them are five from his own office who are being isolated due to close contact with a positive staff member; Kyaw Thet Htoo and the rest of the staff are working from home.
The main cost is food. Unsure how many more people he will need to take care of in the coming weeks and months, Kyaw Thet Htoo is doing his best to conserve cash donations. For now, he is also getting local businesses to donate meals, but expects that eventually he’ll have to start paying for it.
Conditions are spartan. Without beds, the people in quarantine are instead forced to sleep on school desks, he said. The minimal support they have received includes 50 mosquito nets, which the Dawbon Township Health Department provided earlier this year during the first COVID-19 outbreak.
Funding for quarantine centres has been a challenge since the first COVID-19 cases were confirmed back in March. At the time, the government ordered that one reserve quarantine centre be established in each township and its operating costs be covered by the state or region COVID-19 emergency response committee. But Kyaw Thet Htoo said township facilities had received almost no support from the government.
“Frankly speaking, not a kyat has been provided; we had to seek donations then, too,” Kyaw Thet Htoo told Frontier.
U Wunna Htun, the GAD officer for downtown Yangon’s Lanmadaw Township, said township officials were responding to the order to establish the centres depending on the local situation.
“During the first wave, there were no COVID-19 cases in our township, but now there are four and at this rate we will need a quarantine centre to isolate the positive patients,” Wunna Htun told Frontier on September 8.
As of September 18, a quarantine facility for 50 people was being prepared in Lanmadaw Basic Education High School 1 and was due to open in the coming week, said Wunna Htun. Like in Dawbon, it will be run with donations.
Speaking to Frontier earlier, Wunna Htun had been hopeful that donations might not be necessary.
The Yangon regional government had asked for a list of what was needed to open a quarantine centre, but has not committed to providing funds.
“It costs a lot of money and we cannot do it without government support; I’ve submitted the list and we are waiting for a response,” he said.
Kyaw Thet Htoo said the regional government had asked that the estimated cost of the quarantine centres be conveyed verbally rather than in writing.
“At regional and district-level meetings, we were told that support and assistance would be provided, but in practice, the only material support we have received is bottles of drinking water,” he said.
“At the request of the personal staff officer of the [Yangon Region] minister for social affairs, we submitted the estimated cost of establishing a centre, but are yet to receive a response,” the Dawbon GAD officer said.
The biggest clusters from the COVID-19 second wave have been detected in the Rakhine State capital Sittwe and in Yangon city’s northeastern Thingangyun Township, where a facility quarantine centre operated by the regional government was opened at the Ministry of Construction’s central training school on September 1.
As of September 10, there were 66 people under surveillance at the training school. They were receiving three meals a day under a budget from the regional government, said U Aung Htike, the GAD officer for Thingangyun Township.
Among those under surveillance at the centre established at the training school was Ma Hnin Hnin Lwin, a supervisor at a leather bag factory in the Mingaladon industrial zone, where a worker tested positive for COVID-19. The centre was covering all costs of those under surveillance, she said.
Aung Htike said the township was also planning to open a quarantine centre at the Thingyangun Education College that will be funded by donations, adding that it had already received some from local businesses.
U Htein Linn, a member of the Thingangyun Township COVID-19 Prevention and Control Committee who is running the centre, said funding was not an issue – a bigger problem was people in quarantine trying to get their hands on liquor and cigarettes.
However, he said donations may be needed to fund the quarantine centre that the township plans to open at the education college.
But raising funds from small businesses to open and operate quarantine centres could prove difficult because many of the businesses on which they rely for donations, such as restaurants, teashops, hotels, guesthouses and karaoke lounges, have been hardest hit by the economic impact of the coronavirus.
“We give what we can,” said the owner of a small hotel in Dawbon Township, “but we cannot donate much when our businesses are not doing well.”