While COVID-19 patients are being called criminals, discrimination and harassment is driving some frontline medical workers into depression.
By YE MON | FRONTIER
In Myanmar, discrimination and hate speech related to COVID-19 began many weeks before the first confirmed cases were reported on March 23.
On February 2, the government evacuated 59 students from Wuhan, the Chinese city at the epicentre of the pandemic. But instead of welcoming back their fellow citizens, some Facebook users criticised their rescue, writing that the students should have been left in Wuhan.
The situation has deteriorated since then. As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases has risen in Myanmar, so too has the discrimination and even hate speech targeting both patients and the medical personnel on the frontline of the battle against the virus.
These comments can even be found underneath the Ministry of Health and Sports Facebook posts announcing new cases. “The number has increased again. The trouble from David Lah hasn’t stopped yet,” wrote one person under a recent announcement, referring to a prominent COVID-19 patient. Another wrote: “The virus started [in Myanmar] because it was spread by people coming from abroad. If they weren’t here, neither would the virus.” Although there are some comments wishing a speedy recovery or for the end of the pandemic, they are much fewer than those blaming the victims.
It presents an ugly and jarring contrast to the images of donors providing masks or basic commodities to low-income households, or volunteers packing donated goods for distribution.
It also threatens to undermine efforts to prevent the coronavirus from spreading, as those exhibiting symptoms may be too afraid to come forward and seek diagnosis, officials say.
“It can make patients more reluctant to go to a clinic or hospital when they are sick,” said Dr Than Naing Soe, a Ministry of Health and Sports spokesperson.
He said people needed to realise that COVID-19 patients were victims.
“The patients who have tested positive are humans, too. They have been infected accidentally and we should be kind to them,” he said. “The ministry will have to conduct more awareness programmes for the public [to fight discrimination against COVID-19 patients].”
Some confirmed patients are even being described as criminals on social media and being accused of knowingly spreading the virus.
One target of public anger is patient number 24, a returnee from Singapore, who has been accused of spreading the coronavirus to patient 26, from whom it was passed to attendees at a Christian worship event in Insein Township in northern Yangon.
Frontier tried unsuccessfully to interview patient 24, who is receiving treatment at the Waibargi infectious diseases hospital in Yangon’s North Okkalapa Township. Doctors at Waibargi have instructed patients not to talk to journalists.
Ko Kyaw Zin, a friend of patient 24, said it was unfair to suggest that he had knowingly spread it after returning from Singapore.
“It is wrong to call him a criminal; he is very upset about that,” Kyaw Zin said.
The accusations have continued, even as the number of confirmed cases in Myanmar has risen to 155 as of May 4.
The vicious targeting of some COVID-19 sufferers prompted Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to address the issue during a video conference on April 15.
She called on the public to encourage and support rather than blame patients, and to avoid accusing particular patients of spreading the virus, noting that many do not even have any symptoms.
Christians in particular have found themselves targets of hate speech on social media, particularly after footage emerged of worshippers at an event in Insein at the end of March after the authorities introduced social distancing rules. A total of 65 people have tested positive since the religious event as part of what’s known as the “Insein cluster”. Another Christian gathering held around the same time in Mayangone has also been linked to COVID-19 cases.
The pastor who led the Insein service, Saw David Lah, was also infected but has since recovered. He is expected to face charges under the Natural Disaster Management Law for failing to follow the Yangon Region government order banning mass gatherings. Another three people are also expected to be charged in relation to the two religious events.
The abuse targeting Christians apparently prompted a response from the President’s Office, which issued an order on April 21 instructing state and regional governments to encourage public servants to denounce and prevent all forms of hate speech.
The order said citizens have the right to be treated with respect and to live without fear of violence, intimidation or discrimination based on group identity or personal characteristics.
Dr Thar Tun Kyaw, another spokesperson for the health ministry, said on April 22 that it was wrong to blame those infected with COVID-19.
“It’s important to be kind to people who have been infected with COVID-19,” he said.
In one example of the fear and anxiety created by COVID-19, residents and community groups in Kalay Township, Sagaing Region, on April 14 objected to a decision to transfer three coronavirus patients from Chin State’s Tedim Township.
Health officials sought to transfer the patients because they could receive a better level of care in Kalay. However, after residents raised concerns about the risk of being infected, the transfer was cancelled.
For some patients, the scrutiny and vitriol has almost been too much to bear. On April 28, a Burmese-language publication that specialises in investigative journalism, Mawkun Magazine, quoted the nation’s third confirmed patient as saying he considered committing suicide over misinformation about him posted on Facebook.
“[When that happened] I did not want to see tomorrow,” he told the magazine. “I did not want to wake up.”
Medical personnel ostracised
Medical personnel involved in treating COVID-19 patients have also been experiencing hostility that is affecting their personal lives.
Doctors and nurses have been disparaged by their neighbours and other community members after returning to their homes. Even those who have undergone 21 days’ quarantine after being in contact with a COVID-19 patient, and been released after showing no symptoms, are being targeted, said Than Naing Soe from the health ministry.
A Yangon doctor who works directly with COVID-19 patients at the Maternal and Child Hospital in South Okkalapa Township said people in his neighbourhood look at him as if he is a criminal because they fear being infected by him.
He said it was common for medical personnel to be intercepted when they return home and questioned about their work in hospitals.
“People have not authority to do that,” said the doctor, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “I always argue with them.”
The doctor said people needed to understand that doctors and nurses take every precaution to avoid infection. “We will not infect the people,” he said.
Dr Htin Paw, chairman of the Myanmar Private Hospitals’ Association, told Frontier that some health workers in Yangon were suffering from depression because of discrimination and harassment.
“People don’t know much about the disease and are unaware of the steps that medical personnel must undergo before they leave their workplaces to ensure they are not a threat,” Htin Paw said.
“The government needs to explain the precautions taken by medical personnel so that the people understand.”
Recent research appears to support Htin Paw’s comments. On April 29, the health ministry published a survey that revealed low levels of public knowledge about the coronavirus.
Conducted in March with a sample of 597 individuals from Yangon and Bago regions, the study found 87 percent of respondents felt they knew little about the virus. Alarmingly, only about half of the respondents understood that frequent hand washing and avoiding crowds could help prevent the spread of the disease and only 11pc understood the idea of physical distancing to prevent transmission. The survey concluded that the “public knowledge, perception of the disease and the compliance of health guidelines is still weak”.
Knowledge has almost certainly increased since then, thanks to increased reporting and public awareness campaigns, but health officials say doctors and nurses are still facing discrimination.
Health ministry spokesperson Than Naing Soe said the ministry had arranged accommodation for medical personnel who did not want to return to their homes for any reason.
“People who are concerned about being infected by the virus should be sympathetic to medical personnel, who are also experiencing fear and anxiety because of their roles on the frontline of the fight against COVID-19,” he said. “Medical personnel should not have to be afraid to return to their homes.”