An announcement lifting restrictions on three Yangon townships has caused widespread confusion, with many instead thinking much of the city was no longer under stay-at-home orders.
By ANDREW NACHEMSON and AUNG PHAY KYI SOE | FRONTIER
On December 27, the Myanmar government lifted stay-at-home orders in parts of three Yangon townships: Seikgyikanaungto, Twante and Kungyangon. Every other township in mainland Yangon Region remained under stay-at-home orders.
It seemed like a simple message to convey.
Not for the Ministry of Health and Sports. Its lengthy, confusing December 26 announcement left many residents of Myanmar’s largest city unsure whether they were still under lockdown. Reliable translators argued that the message said all townships except those three had been released from the restrictions. Others claimed it said the exact opposite, and the stay-at-home orders introduced on September 21 – more than 14 weeks ago – remained in force.
Then came an official English translation of the statement, which seemed to clear things up. “It is hereby announced that the Stay-at-Home order issued for the townships in Yangon Region (excluding the wards/villages in Seikkyi/Khanaungto, Twantay, and Kungyangon townships in Yangon Region) ended at 8am on 27-12-2020,” the statement said.
Surely that meant all of Yangon except those three townships was released from lockdown? But on a second (or even third) read, it became apparent that the English statement could be interpreted both ways. “The townships” could refer to just those three townships or to all the townships of Yangon.
Scrambling to make sense of an increasingly senseless situation, Frontier turned to the Ministry of Health and Sports for clarification. Daw Khin Khin Gyi, director of the ministry’s epidemiology department, said the statement meant only three townships were lifted from lockdown. “The remaining 41 townships in the region are still under stay-at-home orders,” she said. But other officials disagreed, and it became clear that members of the health ministry itself were confused about the meaning of the order. Both Burmese and English-language press, including the Chinese state outlet Xinhua, carried reports that restrictions had been lifted across most of Yangon.
Finally, a correction was issued on the morning of December 28, clarifying that only three townships were released. Bizarrely, it was buried in a tiny corner of the eighth page of the state-run Global New Light of Myanmar.
Dr Aung Tun, a public health expert and former adviser to the health minister, said the statement was unclear and unnecessarily complicated. “Don’t add too much information to the statement. Just say what the current situation is and which townships will be relaxed – that’s all,” he said.
But Aung Tun said the December 26 announcement was symptomatic of a bigger problem. Because so many COVID-19 related orders have been issued by different departments over the past year, it’s easy to get confused or overwhelmed with information, he said. “Because of the large number of orders that have been announced, some people don’t know which are still in force.”
The monthly extension of general COVID-19 prevention measures has also been a source of confusion. While stay-at-home orders were imposed indefinitely, other restrictions are renewed every month, such as mandatory facemasks in public, limits on crowd sizes and nightly curfews. These rules were first imposed in April and have been extended every month since, but it’s never been clear why these measures are imposed monthly, rather than indefinitely like the lockdowns. The effect is that every time they are extended, there is widespread confusion about what it actually means and which restrictions are being extended.
The overlapping and confusing orders are even frustrating high-ranking ruling party officials, like U Ye Lwin, the mayor of Mandalay. When the nationwide preventive measures were extended until the end of January, he took to Facebook to complain. “Everyone is making their own orders – the Union government, the central COVID-19 committee, the regional government, and township and ward administrations,” he wrote.
U Myint Kyaw, joint secretary for the Myanmar Press Council, agreed that the rules were so confusing that even public officials were “getting lost”. He said under the former military dictatorship, the regime could release orders without taking responsibility for them, but things should have changed with the new government. “In this age, the government has responsibility and accountability and should not act like this,” he said.
He also pointed out that the stay-at-home orders that continue in most of Yangon are no longer “in line with reality”.
In many ways, the government orders are largely beside the point. Lockdown or not, Yangon’s streets are teeming with vehicle and foot traffic. Bars and restaurants are openly flouting bans on dine in service. Gyms, massage parlours, barbers and other high-risk businesses are eagerly accepting customers. The lockdown in Yangon is being so loosely enforced as to be effectively over.
But the stay-at-home orders do have one major implication: domestic travel. Those travelling from a township under stay-at-home orders (virtually all of Yangon) to an unrestricted township must quarantine upon arrival until they test negative for COVID-19. This is clearly a major deterrent to leisure travel and the main barrier to resurrecting Myanmar’s crippled tourism industry.
Mr Bertie Lawson, CEO of Sampan Travel, said dealing with the government’s convoluted orders during the COVID-19 crisis has been “exasperating”.
“We have spent six months refreshing the MoHS Facebook page trying to comprehend the guidance being issued,” he said in an email. “It is impossible to plan ahead and it is impossible to rely on different regions to follow what we understand to be the official policy.
“I think that maybe it would have been better to have not spent six months running in circles trying to keep up with the latest, last-minute updates. Instead we could have spent that time training, building capacity, planning awesome itineraries for the future.”
Khin Maung Oo, general secretary of the Hlaing Tharyar Industrial Zone, sympathised with the government’s need to balance health response with economic imperatives. “Businesses would do better if government orders were withdrawn, but on the other hand, if the disease spreads, orders would need to be reissued,” he said. He added that businesses should be allowed to “reopen gradually” in line with COVID-19 precautions, with the public needing to learn how to “coexist with COVID-19”.
Aung Tun, the former ministry adviser, said it was time for the stay-at-home orders to be lifted.
He pointed out that the decision to maintain restrictions in Yangon seemed to conflict with a December 22 statement from the ministry that said the virus would be around for several years so people would need to learn how to live safely with COVID-19.
“The government’s orders must be relaxed … we have to do it,” he said. “And the reality is that people are outside walking around and gathering in crowds even though the restrictions are in place. There’s no reason to maintain them anymore.”