Words & photos by HKUN LAT | FRONTIER
YANGON — At this time of year, Myanmar would usually be celebrating the Thingyan New Year holiday. Migrant workers would have returned to their home communities to participate in gatherings and street parties with family and friends. Others would have taken advantage of the public holiday to travel overseas.
In cities including Yangon, the streets would be packed with boisterous crowds celebrating the New Year festival, by soaking their neighbours and passing strangers with buckets of water. Music would be blaring from every street corner. There would be events and performances, and the air would be filled with the sounds of celebration.
But this year, Yangon is quiet. There is no overseas travel, because the airports are closed. Few people are leaving their houses, instead obeying government instructions to stay indoors. The COVID-19 pandemic, which has paused the movement of billions of people across the world, has also put lives in Yangon on hold.
When I walked around the city to take photographs, I found places that are usually bustling with people have fallen silent. There are few cars on the roads. Bars and restaurants are closed, with just a handful still open to offer takeaway services. There is no sign of Thingyan being celebrated anywhere. For a person who has grown up in Myanmar, this feels surreal.
Since the government confirmed Myanmar’s first cases of COVID-19 on March 23, it has increased measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Public gatherings, events, and conferences have been cancelled. Some restrictions have been placed on travel. In cities such as Yangon, limitations on movement are stricter than elsewhere, and a soft lockdown has been imposed between April 10 and 19.
There are 38 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Myanmar with three deaths, according to the Ministry of Health and Sports. Given the limited amount of testing that has been conducted, it’s likely the real number of cases is higher.
But not all the effects of the coronavirus outbreak are negative. On April 10, I received a notification from AirVisual on my phone, which said the air quality in Yangon had improved to moderate, measuring 88 on the United States Air Quality Index.
This is a dramatic improvement, given that in the months leading up to the coronavirus outbreak, air pollution levels in the city measured as high as 150 to 200 on the same scale.
As a photographer, this unusual time enables me to see Yangon in a different light. As I have wandered the city’s streets, I’ve heard birds chirping, instead of the familiar sound of vehicle horns.
I have noticed the architectural beauty of heritage buildings that I had never paid attention to before. Every street that I walked along was quiet and clean. It was a far cry from the crowded, polluted metropolis that I usually live in. The pandemic has not only given me a chance to reflect, it has helped me to reimagine Yangon as a cleaner, greener city.