A Rakhine IDP family in the Shitthaung IDP camp don face masks on August 20, at the beginning of a surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases across the state. (Hkun Lat I Frontier)
A Rakhine family wears face masks in the Shitthaung IDP camp on August 20, at the beginning of a surge in confirmed COVID-19 cases across the state. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

In photos: Mrauk-U before the lockdown

Before stay-at-home orders were issued across Rakhine State, Frontier photographer Hkun Lat captured the response in Mrauk-U as the first confirmed cases were announced.

In less than two weeks, Rakhine State racked up nearly 200 new cases of COVID-19, mostly concentrated in the capital, Sittwe. In Mrauk-U, the capital of the ancient Rakhine kingdom, there have been 14 confirmed cases so far. The entire state has been under stay-at-home orders since August 26, but when Frontier visited last week, residents were just awakening to the threat of the virus.

Food vendors wear field shields while serving customers in Mrauk-U, a week before the government ordered a state-wide stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
Food vendors wear face shields while serving customers in Mrauk-U on August 21, five days before the entire state was put under a stay-at-home order to prevent the spread of COVID-19. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Before the first case was confirmed in Mrauk-U on August 20, people here assumed they’d dodged the pandemic; now, firefighters are hosing down streets and markets with disinfectant, and Red Cross staffers are distributing face masks and checking temperatures.

Firefighters disinfect Mrauk-U’s main market on August 21 to protect residents from COVID-19. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Mrauk-U’s first confirmed patient is a nurse who is believed to have recently visited three IDP camps in the township before falling ill. 

Across the north of the state, tens of thousands have been displaced by the ongoing war between the Myanmar military and the Arakan Army. In Mrauk-U, as of August 5, 18,211 IDPs were living in 26 camps around the township.

The Myatasaung IDP camp is one of the largest in Mrauk-U. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Fears of the virus spreading to these camps, where overcrowding and substandard housing make social distancing impossible, are at the top of mind for many government and civil society leaders. At Myatasaung, one of Mrauk-U’s largest IDP camps, families often share single rooms measuring 10 feet by 15 feet. In other camps, families share large halls.

IDPs prepare dinner at a camp in Mrauk-U Township. (Hkan Lat | Frontier)
IDPs prepare dinner at a camp in Mrauk-U Township. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Those who had contact with the first case in Mrauk-U are being quarantined in government-run facilities within the camps, according to Dr Nay Lin Tun, who is volunteering on the COVID-19 frontline in Sittwe.

But IDP camp residents and civil society workers fear a large-scale outbreak may already be underway.

Children bathe near an ancient pagoda in Mrauk-U. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

They also say the response is being hampered by lack of internet. Since June of last year, the government has ordered telecom providers to shut down internet access in eight townships in northern Rakhine and southern Chin states, including Mrauk-U. The government claims the block is aimed at AA communications, but one unfortunate side effect of the world’s longest-running internet blackout is that it is now difficult for people to access new and reliable information on the evolving COVID-19 situation.

IDPs carry bags of rice donated by the Red Cross at the Myothit Monastery IDP camp on August 21. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

In May, full internet access was restored in Maungdaw Township and in August access was restored in the remaining townships, but only at speeds up to 2G, making most tasks impossible. Mrauk-U residents climb nearby hills to try and reach a 3G connection to get updates on the outbreak.

Mrauk-U residents sit atop a forested hill just outside of town trying to get a 3G cell phone signal. Internet has been blocked by the government there for more than year. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
Mrauk-U residents sit atop a forested hill just outside of town trying to get a 3G phone signal. The government blocked mobile internet for more than a year before allowing 2G services to resume in August. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Back in Mrauk-U, restaurants have stopped offering dine-in service and nearby villagers have stopped coming to central markets. “Everyone is too scared,” the driver of a three-wheeled motorbike taxi in Mrauk-U told Frontier. NGOs have mostly ceased operating as well. Humanitarian food aid for IDPs must be left with camp staff to be distributed.

A three-wheeled motorbike taxi idles on a normally busy street in Mrauk-U, where 14 new COVID-19 cases have been confirmed. (Hkin Lat | Frontier)
A three-wheeled motorbike taxi idles on a normally busy street in Mrauk-U, where 14 COVID-19 cases have been confirmed since August 20. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

Despite growing concern and the decisive steps taken at local and national-level government agencies, not everyone was following mandates and guidelines. When Frontier visited last week, the streets were quieter but they were not empty, and masks were not yet ubiquitous.

Mrauk-U residents shop at a market without face masks or personal protective equipment on August 21, a day after the first case was confirmed in the town. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)
Mrauk-U residents shop at a market without face masks or personal protective equipment on August 21, a day after the first case was confirmed in the town. (Hkun Lat | Frontier)

“We are very worried that the situation might get worse,” said U Ba Nyunt, a member of Mrauk-U’s civil society-led Committee for COVID-19 Pandemic Protection.

By Hkun Lat

By Hkun Lat

Hkun Lat is a documentary photographer based in Yangon. He works on his own projects and on assignment for international media and organisations.
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