Medics in Myanmar on strike against military amid COVID-19 crisis

Front-line healthcare workers from more than 70 medical facilities across the country announced a walkout in response to the putsch.

Medical workers pose during a protest against the coup that removed elected leader Aung San Suu Kyi at in Yangon General Hospital [Reuters]

Yangon, Myanmar – The Myanmar military’s recent overthrow of the civilian government has come against the backdrop of a COVID-19 outbreak that was just being brought under control.

Front-line healthcare workers from more than 70 medical units and hospitals across the country announced a strike on Wednesday, refusing to work for the military regime. The developments raise fresh concerns about Myanmar’s coronavirus response and vaccination programme, which began on January 27, days before the coup.

“I was so relieved to get the vaccine a few days ago. But our future depends on how the country is run. We don’t want to go back to the dark after staying in the light for some time,” said a 29-year-old doctor in Yangon who joined the strike.

He said healthcare workers “simply do not want to work for the regime that staged the military coup”.

Another doctor – also speaking on condition of anonymity – said the putsch will destroy morale for medical professionals.

“The military coup will surely drag down the motivation of hundreds of thousands of healthcare workers who are at the front line of the war against the COVID-19. Volunteers, inspired by Aung San Suu Kyi, risked their lives to participate in containing COVID-19 … Would a lot of people happily enlist themselves to be volunteers with Min Aung Hlaing in charge? I don’t think so,” he said.

“Our intention for this campaign is to stop the mechanisms of this government,” said the first doctor. “Though we, the medical doctors, initiated the move, we want other departments of the government to participate too. If more departments become involved in the civil disobedience campaign, we believe that the government machine will stop running.”

1,500 cases a day

To date, Myanmar has reported 140,644 total COVID-19 cases and 3,146 deaths, although testing capacity has been relatively low. The outbreak does seem to have been brought under control in recent weeks.

In October, November, and early December, Myanmar was reporting as many as 1,500 cases a day, sometimes with up to 9 percent of all tests coming back positive.

In January, those numbers fell to about 300 cases a day, with a consistent positive rate of approximately 2-3 percent. On Tuesday, for example, there were just 310 new cases announced at a positive rate of 2.5 percent.

The vaccination roll-out began last week, with front-line health workers and high-ranking government officials given priority access to a batch of 1.5 million doses donated by the Indian government.

Most received their first of the two injections at the time of the coup. Myanmar had already signed an agreement with India to buy enough Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccines to inoculate 15 million people of its population of 55 million.

Soldiers stand guard on a street in the capital Naypyidaw during Monday’s coup [AFP]

‘Disruption to health services’

Yangon International Airport is reportedly closed till May. International commercial flights had been grounded by the civilian government since March to prevent the importation of the virus, but repatriation flights and cargo flights were still running, including medical deliveries.

According to the Myanmar embassy in Malaysia, relief flights for citizens trying to return from Kuala Lumpur to Yangon will continue, although some are being rescheduled. A health official told The Myanmar Times the health ministry has not heard of any changes to the vaccine schedule and assumes they will arrive as planned.

“Western countries, like Australia, that might have planned to donate vaccines to Myanmar may pull back, given the takeover,” said one Yangon-based analyst, who requested to comment anonymously.

The Australian government previously pledged to “support access to safe and effective COVID-19 vaccines” for Southeast Asian countries, including Myanmar.

Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne recently said Australia will continue to support Myanmar’s people during “this difficult time”, including with COVID-19 vaccinations. The Australian embassy in Myanmar did not respond to requests for comment from Al Jazeera.

The second doctor also expressed concern about the loss of foreign funding.

“Myanmar’s healthcare system largely depends on external funding from multilateral institutions such as the World Bank. Because of the coup, the political backsliding, if some foreign assistance to the healthcare sector is reduced or cut off, that will have a huge impact on the public health projects, some of which are very crucial for the vulnerable communities,” he said.

Previous military governments have a track record of refusing foreign aid, even at the cost of enormous suffering to regular citizens. In 2008, the military government for days refused to allow international aid in the aftermath of Cyclone Nargis, which has an estimated death toll of nearly 140,000.

Myanmar’s current healthcare system is also underdeveloped because of years of neglect from the military regime.

But the Yangon-based analyst said the closest historical parallel is the HIV/AIDS crisis from the early 2000s.

“Then, the head of military intelligence recognized the threat this might pose and delegated authority to what was then the ministry of health to work with international partners on a National AIDS Strategy,” he said.

Medical staff make a three-finger salute with red ribbons on their uniforms amid growing calls for civil disobedience after the coup [AFP]

The second doctor said in the short term, there “will be disruption to health services” because of the mass walkout of medical workers.

When the military government seized power this week, it replaced most civilian ministers with military appointees. Only three ministers were replaced by direct subordinates, and this included the health ministry.

One public health expert said he expects “very few changes”. “They worked under the military [before 2015] during the past government, and now again with the new regime.”

The analyst agreed the coup “will have little impact” on the health ministry itself. “That said, the public health system is greatly overstretched in dealing with the pandemic.”

That will now only be exacerbated by the mass strike by medical professionals who have reached their breaking point.

“For health care workers, it is mentally frustrating. We have been working throughout the pandemic, and now this military coup has happened. It feels like we are in an era where uncertainty rules,” the first doctor said.

Source: Al Jazeera