Concerns are growing over the welfare of thousands of displaced people in Myanmar’s western Rakhine State who are in lockdown after the discovery of COVID-19 in the camps and unable to get enough food to eat.
The Sin Bawkaing camp for internally displaced people (IDP), which is home to nearly 4,000 people, is the latest to be affected by the country’s accelerating COVID-19 pandemic.
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The camp has been in lockdown since a woman was diagnosed with the virus on July 14, and more cases have since emerged.
“It was really shocking and I don’t know how to survive,” Win Nu, a 33-year-old mother of three told Al Jazeera by phone from the camp where she shares a small room with four members of her family. “The virus can spread easily to the whole camp.”
Six months after the military seized power from Myanmar’s elected government in a coup triggering a political and economic crisis, the country is now facing a deadly new wave of COVID-19.
On Wednesday, the Health Ministry reported 4,980 new cases and 365 deaths but said it had conducted just 13,763 tests nationwide, suggesting the outbreak is much larger than officially reported. Funeral services and local media have shared higher numbers with cremations reported at 1,000 a day in Yangon, the country’s biggest city, but Al Jazeera has been unable to independently confirm the figures.
“Once a person gets infected, it is easier to transmit to other people,” said Mra Tazaung Sayadaw, a monk who has been supporting IDPs by collecting donations since the armed conflict between the Arakan Army (AA) and the Myanmar military that forced them to leave their villages began in 2018.
The AA, established in 2009 and one of Myanmar’s numerous ethnic armed groups, wants self-determination for the people of Rakhine State, and has been fighting the Myanmar military for most of the past two years.
Before the coup, the National League for Democracy (NLD) government had called on the military, known as the Tatmadaw, to “crush” the AA, imposing the world’s longest internet shutdown, and designating the AA a “terrorist organisation”.
It also excluded the AA from its landmark peace conference and blocked humanitarian assistance to conflict-affected people.
The state had already been the location of bloody interethnic violence in 2012 when more than 130,000 mostly Muslim Rohingya were forced into camps within the state, and denied citizenship and rights such as education, freedom of movement, and healthcare under government policies.
In 2017, the military launched a brutal crackdown that forced hundreds of thousands of Rohingya to flee across the border into Bangladesh – and is now the subject of international charges of genocide at the International Court of Justice at The Hague in the Netherlands.
A local civil society group estimates that about 180,000 people remain displaced in the state, including some Rohingya.
Conflict, coup, COVID-19
Since the February 1 coup, little to no food aid or humanitarian assistance has reached the camps, and most IDPs have few, if any, other means of earning an income.
Many are struggling to feed themselves and their families. There are also shortages of masks, and hand sanitiser.
“Because of the military coup in Myanmar, humanitarian aid from national or international organisations was delayed as the military limited international organisations’ access to IDP camps,” Aung Hla*, a social worker from Kyauktaw Township who has been supporting the displaced people since 2018, told Al Jazeera. “Because of that, it has become more difficult to raise awareness of the COVID-19 virus, and necessary items [such as mask, soap and sanitiser] for prevention in camps.”
Across Rakhine State, there are more than 100 camps, with people often living in bamboo or tarpaulin shelters or sleeping in open halls. Conditions are crowded and social distancing is difficult.
The Sin Bawkaing IDP camp, one of the largest in Rakhine State’s Mrauk-U Township, was built in March 2019 by people displaced from 20 villages in the area.
The move to lock down the camp has had a serious effect on daily life.
“Although organisations like WFP [World Food Programme] and ICRC [International Committee of the Red Cross] provide humanitarian relief for us, it is not enough for us now,” Nyi Pu, its camp manager told Al Jazeera by phone from the camp. “The people in the camp are at risk for food, they can’t find essential items such as fish and other ingredients including chilli, spice, and fish paste. That’s why people are now struggling.”
Nyi Pu also says there is less support for COVID-19 prevention in comparison with the first and second waves in February and August 2020.
“There is no support related to COVID-19 prevention right now, except some masks that were provided by local donors,” he said.
On July 20, the United League of Arakan (ULA), a political wing of the AA issued a stay-at-home order for two weeks from July 20 to August 4 to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Rakhine State.
“If anyone doesn’t comply with the statement, the actions will be taken in line with COVID-19 procedures,” the statement added.
The AA, which had declared a ceasefire since the November 2020 elections, has emerged as the de facto political power in the state since the military in March removed the group’s terrorist designation and released jailed members.
“Even in the period before the coup, IDPs were more vulnerable to COVID-19 infection,” Tun Tun*, a local humanitarian worker from Buthidaung Township, told Al Jazeera. “Since the coup, it has become far worse. If the military orders stricter rules on NGOs and INGOs, people may suffer from starvation and COVID-19 infection.”
Tun Tun says the global spread of the coronavirus has already diverted attention from the Rakhine camps.
“The local and international organisations have been giving more attention to the COVID-19 response, while people in IDP camps are starving,” he said. Currently, only the WFP and the ICRC are allowed to provide support to the camps.
The Red Cross told Al Jazeera that its access to the camps in Rakhine was dependent on “travel authorisations” and that it had not been allowed into Sin Bawkaing since 2019.
Nevertheless it said it had adapted its operations to work with camp leaders and local authorities to ensure people were still receiving monthly supplies including food rations, medical items and materials such as bamboo and tarpaulin for shelter.
“Regular and reliable ICRC assistance to the population in the camp continues up to today,” said Jurg Montani, the Acting Head of Delegation in Myanmar. He stressed that the Red Cross had been allowed to operate in most of the more than 50 IDP camps in Central Rakhine, including 24 in Mrauk U township.
Before fighting broke out between the AA and the Tatmadaw, Win Nu worked as a daily wage labourer at a vegetable farm. After artillery attacks hit several times near her village one evening in March 2019, Win Nu fled in a boat with her son and two daughters and has not been back since.
In Sin Bawkaing, she has made a living by foraging for bamboo shoots to sell in the nearest village.
But with the lockdown, they are no longer allowed to leave in the camp, and Win Nu and the hundreds of other families living there are reliant entirely on donations.
“We are in the worst condition right now,” she said. “We eat only rice without any other dishes. We can’t do anything right now under the lockdown, we are now trying not to die.”
*Pseudonyms have been used for Aung Hla and Tun Tun for security reasons.